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This short story is part of our Global Dystopias project.
Freshman year, Thanksgiving break, smell of sauce and breaded chicken squeezing up through the floor, he saw the tight corners on his bed and never went back to the stink of his roommate’s hockey bag, and then a couple years without an alarm clock blew by before his parents made him get a job. He’s been working four shifts a week at Dunkin’ Donuts for an interval he prefers to leave undefined.
Dominic stresses optics. Steady job, social life. Stay on Facebook, pictures of the dog, eggs Benedict, happy birthday, RIP, like like like. There’s a guy who’s never had an original thought in his life.
Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays his mother needs the Odyssey, so Son walks to work on the shoulder of a highway. He passes used car dealerships, the sprawling lot of BJ’s Wholesale Club, an eyebrow threading/tanning salon/massage parlor, an old strip mall with available space on both sides of the cleaners, fresher paint below the removed signage, Uncle Jerry’s Cards and Comics, where they found the bones of seven boys under the basement floor. He has the go bag on his shoulders, thirty-five pounds of gear, to train his legs. When the end begins, Son will walk steady. Soon. Into the woods.
Fridays the Odyssey is free and the go bag rides shotgun. He leans over the steering wheel to watch an airliner chalk long parallel slits high in the blue and then jerks back into his lane. He wipes his palms on the front of his uniform. He turns the knob to lower the volume, two nasally Texans discussing unsolved murders in a garage studio, and accelerates, holding his breath against a sinister and invisible snowfall.
• • •
On his desk at home are mail-ordered supplements. He applies three iodine drops directly to his tongue each morning. He has vitality capsules, capsules for advanced neural activation made from Bacopa extract, yerba mate leaf powder, phosphatidylserine, black pepper fruit extract. He keeps his mouth firmly shut in the shower.
At the front door, he puts on a high-altitude training mask. It looks like the bottom half of a gas mask. His parents are watching Dancing with the Stars, glasses of red swirling with TV light. His sister is on her phone above her homework at the kitchen table. No one looks his way.
Three and a half miles through empty suburban streets. The living room curtains pulse blue as they drink from the mainstream. He jogs by three-bedroom houses with colored shutters, two-car garages, and finished basements. Where he played Halo with Oliver, chugged schnapps before homecoming with Fob. Memories washed in milk, his calf tingles, recalling manhunt, the whole neighborhood chasing him from yard to yard, he stepped in a rabbit hole, broke his ankle, they circled around and watched him cry in the shadow they made. Rounding Albert Drive, Son catches a drift of skunk from Mr. Conway’s back porch and a glimpse of the aboveground pool in which he had his first kiss—Ant’s older cousin Carissa, summer ’04, the pride survives in the taste of chlorine.
There are no kids around, day or night. The forts have rotted in the woods at the edge of the development where Son has buried cache tubes under marked stones. He pumps his arms, nearly tearful, Alex Jones screaming in his ears. He swings onto the main road for the last quarter mile and stops at the gas station, a hand against the brick as he pulls a foot back to stretch his quad. The lights hum above the pumps. The pay phone doesn’t ring, but he lifts the receiver at the scheduled time, and there is a voice.
“You realize the thought stream is all that’s left?”
He pictures a skyline crowded with cranes, sidewalk jammed with men in dark suits and sunglasses at night.
He’s been working four shifts a week at Dunkin’ Donuts for an interval he prefers to leave undefined.
“The mindlife,” he says.
“Once they breach the skin it’s all over,” Dominic says. “It’s soon.”
“It’s been all over, pal.”
“The promise is prolonged consciousness, but what they’ll do is leak your fantasies to mother, boss, wife and kids. They’ll enlist animators to render your subway thoughts in lurid detail and use them for blackmail.”
“I’ve never been on the subway.”
“All the awful hypotheticals perpetrated against crying babies on airplanes. Sick stray curiosity. Smell of sister’s pussy.”
“I thought this was urgent,” Son says. “How is this an alert? What’s the deal with the AR?”
“Converted. Desperate for your touch.”
Dominic is from a rich family. He works on a high floor in a glass tower, at a hedge fund operated by a family friend. Futures, he trades futures on three monitors.
Dominic stresses optics. Steady job, social life. Stay on Facebook, pictures of the dog, eggs Benedict, happy birthday, RIP, like like like. If Son passed him on the sidewalk, Dominic claims, and saw his tan, his haircut, his teeth, saw his fleece vest, periwinkle pants and boat shoes, Son would think, There’s a guy who’s never had an original thought in his life. “Dominic” is not his real name.
They are administrators of Submondon, a small community you won’t find on Google. Mostly they discuss current events, leaked emails. You can also commission a continuous video feed of your ex-girlfriend’s webcam.
“I was on a camping trip,” Dominic says. “We were high in the mountains, five of us. An altitude where you don’t check for service. We’re sitting by the fire, drinking IPAs, it’s not important. Picture an ad for a beer with pine trees on its label, any camping photo you’ve ever seen—that’s us for three days, two nights. And my buddy has this little speaker. He’s playing something atmospheric, vaguely spiritual.”
“Instrumentals for stargazing in the mountains. There’s a Pandora channel.”
“It was so fitting. Too fitting. Everyone starts talking about meaning, things happening for reasons. I keep checking over my shoulder. Are we shooting this tight or staying wide? Who gets the monologue with the slow zoom?”
“This is the alert,” Son says, lowering his voice as a black Town Car pulls up to one of the pumps. He scopes it out in the reflection on the mini-mart door. The driver invisible behind the gloss of the light on the windshield. “Get to inexplicable lights in the sky and the body with no signs of trauma.”
“What I want to know is, are they using music against us?”
“I don’t listen to music when I run, drive, ever. Music is a mass hypnotic. Second only to so-called unscripted television.”
They have a finance algorithm friend they tolerate, all he talks about is fiber optic cables, nanoseconds and market deception. Sometimes iTunes and Spotify have to be separated. Hulu sits in the corner drooling. None of them dreams.
“I say, ‘I’m gonna buy a record player.’ I tell the group, ‘I’m gonna buy at estate sales and street vendors, records with lapsed rights.’”
“You’re gonna need a wide-brimmed hat and a better sense of irony,” Son says, “and a laminated list of non-white friends to carry in your wallet.”
“Imagine the algorithms in charge of the suggestions. One works for iTunes, another works for Netflix, one doing books at Amazon. They hang out together at a bar that looks like a dive bar but isn’t one. They all have rarefied taste in their fields, they know everything, they compete with their knowledge, but they don’t really get the material.”
“‘Of course I know Tarkovsky, Watson, you herb: Foreign Language, Sci-Fi, Critically Acclaimed. You might also like: Fellini, Bresson, Kubrick.’”
“They have a finance algorithm friend they tolerate, all he talks about is fiber optic cables, nanoseconds and market deception. Sometimes iTunes and Spotify have to be separated. Hulu sits in the corner drooling. None of them dreams.”
Dominic feeds another quarter into his pay phone.
“So I get back from my trip, okay? My boss tells me his friend just published a book on Keynes in light of automated transportation systems. Obviously I’m gonna keep the thing poking from bag at all times. I’ll wear out the spine and read the blurbs and first and last chapters too. I go on Amazon, and what do I see?”
“Hentai manga, as always.”
“Ten suggestions for record players I might be interested in.”
“I’ve had that happen before.”
“This is not something I’ve searched for before, on Amazon, elsewhere, anywhere.”
“I had survival knives show up the morning after I dreamed I was sinking into a lake, trapped by my seatbelt.”
“I talked about a record player one time at ten thousand feet. Two days later I get prompted to buy one.”
“Maybe they didn’t hear. Maybe they’re in your thoughts already.”
On the other end, Son hears a siren wail, become immediate and begin to recede before it’s cut short, and then he replaces the receiver and starts to jog home. The Town Car pulls out after him.
• • •
Friday night, snow, few baked goods remain on the racks—stale salt bagels and jelly sticks, frosting smears on wax paper. Outside, there is an endless stream of cars, heavier traffic than he’s seen at any time of day. They’re all headed in the same direction, wheels loud in the slush. It seems like an evacuation, but he can’t find news of it. The TV is on mute above the empty tables. Troy and Michelle are unconcerned, on their phones. Son heats up hash browns for himself, changes the channel to the local news and sits at a table. He reads the subtitles, waiting for the story: outbreak, chemical attack, grid collapse. He squeezes the go bag between his ankles.
Police have fished a judge from the river, he reads. They show the dark river, police tape waving along the bank. No sign of trauma. The judge is described as a “force for good.”
‘A man isn’t supposed to have relations with sheep.’ Son yawned. ‘That’s in the Bible.’
The toxicology report will come back clean except for a black line over the name of a rare poison, Son knows. The potato lumps go dry in his mouth. Another faked suicide. Son can’t swallow, he spits into a napkin.
Around eleven, Troy’s friend Gian pulls up. Son recognizes the green neon lights on the undercarriage of his Scion. Gian is massive, wearing gray sweats and dirty white Nikes. You can tell he normally gels his hair but it isn’t gelled now and he has stubble where eyebrow hairs are growing back after a wax. Troy takes a smoke break. Then Gian hangs out in the bathroom for a while. Son sticks the Out of Order sign on the door for him.
• • •
In the afternoon, his mother hunches over a cup of yogurt and her phone and waits for Katie to get off the bus with homework and gossip. She doesn’t look up when Son refills his water jug, drops in a fizzing purification tablet. The TV is on in the other room. The zippers clink in the dryer. She does his laundry but stopped arranging dates after the Lauren Monacchio disaster.
They went to see an Adam Sandler movie and then walked across the plaza for dinner. Son wore a collared shirt, paid for everything, held doors and eye contact, asked follow-up questions to Lauren’s stories and developed a pretty solid understanding of the social dynamic at the salon. He sipped his wine thoughtfully. She hooked her foot around his calf under the table, the napkin rose slightly in his lap. He watched her chew and wondered about the flavor of her lip gloss—raspberry, strawberry, or cherry? At dessert, he was thinking extra-base hit, when to swallow the vitality pill, where to park, dead end in the unfinished development or the dirt lot by the stocked pond, but somehow the topic of jet fuel came up as they sparred with their spoons over tiramisu, what it can and cannot melt, the controlled demolition of WTC 7 and the actors paid to perform grief on cable news.
“Did you get a hair or something,” he asked, turning over the creamy ruins after seeing the look on Lauren’s face.
The next morning, he heard his mother apologizing on the phone.
“You couldn’t lay off that crap for one date?” she said. She added milk to the bowl and furiously whisked his eggs. “The girl’s uncle’s a firefighter, no less.”
“Save your breath, Lin,” his father said from the living room. He was watching Little League World Series qualifiers in his Saturday tracksuit and drinking iced coffee heavy with cream, knees spread as wide as they could go, Bluetooth headset clipped in his right ear.
“One date—is that so much to ask?”
“I thought her uncle was an accountant for the mob,” Son said.
There was an aluminum ping, the sound of mothers shrieking and a grown man becoming excited.
“One run scores, Halverson rounding third!”
Son will leave his family. He’ll be gone before the emergency alert plays its harsh notes on every channel. He will find a girl abandoned at the side of the road and begin a new life with her in the ruins of the world.
His father shook the ice in his cup and sipped. They gave out Styrofoam cups instead of koozies at the Dunkin’ by the high school. He drove fifteen minutes out of his way so there would be no possibility of a drive-thru encounter with his deadbeat son at his braindead job.
“That ball’s gotta be caught,” he grumbled, probably thinking of pop flies and grounders on Saturdays in March, red hands and raw nostrils, wet grass sucking at their feet, the lessons wasted on his son.
The eggs snapped and bubbled in the pan.
“A man isn’t supposed to have relations with sheep.” Son yawned. “That’s in the Bible.”
“What man are you talking about,” his father said.
• • •
Son will leave his family. He’ll be gone before the emergency alert plays its harsh notes on every channel. He will find a girl abandoned at the side of the road and begin a new life with her in the ruins of the world. He will build them shelter in the woods above the projected water lines.
In the spring, on a sunny day, he puts a mini bottle of wine, a travel-size vanilla bean body cream, and a handwritten note in a cache tube. He hides the tube in the hollow of a tree on a hill overlooking a tulip farm, rowed pink and red heads and an old barn. He carves a heart into the bark and marks the exact coordinates in his notebook.
He will surprise her on the anniversary of the end.
• • •
On break after the after-church rush—misplaced faith and concentrated sugar married each Sunday—Son smokes a skinny blunt with Troy. They cut across the drive-thru lane and duck into the woods, their steps padded by layered leaves. Briars tug at their shirts and arms. A ways in there’s a spot where three folding chairs face a narrow creek, joints rusted, many species of cigarette butts at their feet. Son’s buried water filters and MRE field rations here. He’s recorded the coordinates in the spiral bound notebook he keeps in the go bag, plenty of pages left free for a first-person account of the end days.
Troy tilts a little puddle from the seat and dries it with the hem of his shirt. He has no interest in talking about his tattoos or his kid or television or Gian’s death (Son heard from Michelle). You can tell from his teeth that he’s been in a lot of fights, gotten stomped out, stomped someone out with the Timberland boots he changes into at the end of his shift. He went to prison once, just a ninety-day bid, he says. What he regrets is not pawning the watches. He could’ve bought a street bike with low mileage. Instead he cuffed his sleeves at nightclubs.
Son tries to remain outwardly sober, holds the smoke in his mouth. He’s older than Troy by more than a year. Troy has a chinstrap beard, self-assurance. Son has never achieved any kind of beard or had unprotected sex.
Troy smokes a Newport and shakes his head as Son, sticky-tongued, speaks of private jets full of missing children bound for mansions on private islands, the ritualized dismemberments, the videotapes. Son quotes the leaked emails, translates the code.
Every six weeks Troy sells Son a half ounce of beasters. Unfortunately Troy does not have solid information about his supplier’s supplier, he buys it from the spook downstairs from his mom, he says. Son wants to know indoor or outdoor, month of harvest, what kind of fertilizer. He prefers to trace things to their origins, to ask questions and uncover rare truths sparkling from decades of organized suppression.
In the bathroom he puts in eye drops that burn and spends a long time washing his hands and wrists, massaging the tendons. His veins feel empty. The weeks blow by, nothing happens. He wants full veins, heavy blood, hands rough from self-reliance.
When they talk about peaking in high school, they usually aren’t referring to a JV baseball player who begs on prom night after promising his date, a pitying friend, his friend Fob’s ex-girlfriend, that he wouldn’t try anything. He used to sit next to her in the computer lab. They would instant message each other side by side in their uniforms. Words he never had the courage to put in the air. You’re a great guy, she wrote, and then she went to collect her homework from the printer and floated a trail of vanilla bean body cream. The lab cleared out, he was alone with thirty-three machines. The hard drives whirred. He opened the browser to play helicopter. He knew a site not yet blocked on the server. You guide a black helicopter through a narrowing cave at an increasing velocity. You never reach the end.
He found a tab open already. A page with red text on a black background. He scrolled through. Enhanced photos with arrows and angle symbols. The truth seen in bleak glimpses, through cracks in the official story. Connections, follow the money, notice the pattern. All his life Son had sensed these threads. Here they were all tied in a vast tapestry in gray, red, and green, swirls of smoke rising and digitizing above the rubble, converted to fiat money over the heads of the naked, huddled masses, the stacked dead. He felt a dense and electrified serum coating the disks in his spine, truer than church as child, and sat up straight. He wrote the URL on his palm and stared down Mr. A the rest of the semester, pen capped atop his notebook. He did his own research and never trusted moneyed sources. He wrote his final paper on the origin of the pyramids at Giza and got a D-, the proudest moment of his academic career.
They will be unprepared. They will weigh themselves down with useless things, knotted chargers, a flashlight with dead batteries.
He overhears Shawn giving Troy a hard time about the long break, about the cocked visor. Son straightens his visor. His phone vibrates against his thigh and he’s embarrassed by the quick thrill this gives him. It’s probably his mother asking him to bring home bagels. He dries his hands thoroughly under the blower as a measure of self-control, proof he’s not desperate for contact. Then he checks.
AMBER Alert: Attleboro, MA: LIC/RTS 9111 (PA) 2004 Red Oldsmobile Alero.
The blower continues to scream like the engine of a small jet.
Shawn asks why Son was in the bathroom so long. Behind him, Troy serves a GM salesman with diamond earrings, who sips once and then removes the lid. He looks like he’s about to fling the contents in Troy’s face. He tells Troy he can’t drink this shit, he needs at least four more pumps of hazelnut syrup. Troy looks ready to snatch the studs from the guy’s earlobes.
Son apologizes to Shawn’s Velcro non-slip sneakers. Shawn lingers a doughy hand too low on Son’s back, gold bracelet jingling, and says, “Don’t worry about it.”
Forty-five minutes later, Son turns from the donut rack and nearly drops an assorted dozen.
A red sedan zips by in the windows. Old looking, unpursued. An Alero, he’s pretty sure. Heading south. To the airbase. Where a Gulfstream jet idles on the runway. A moneyman waiting inside, drinking a glass of whole milk, bobbing his knee, thumbing the wheel on his Blackberry. An unnamed island on the manifest, where a luminous blue swimming pool waits and steams at night. They still call it play when they tie the boy against the circular stone, and the robes and daggers come out, and they let the moneyman wear the goat mask and drink first, the way of the world.
Shawn intercepts the box and chases the customer away with apologies. When she’s gone, he reties his ponytail and tells Son to get his head out of the frickin’ clouds.
• • •
Son doesn’t feel great about selling gram bags to Katie when she comes to his room in her uniform with a twenty dollar bill straight from their mother’s purse, but it’s essential that he maintain an unmonitored revenue stream. He makes up for it by flushing her antidepressants, replacing the pills with Vitamin D.
His other customer is Mr. Conway, the stay-at-home widower with shaggy gray hair, an immaculate lawn, and a flourishing vegetable garden.
Mr. Conway leaves a wake of murmurs wherever he goes. His wife died in an accident that occasioned an enormous payout. There are rumors of screaming fights before, young girlfriends after. Mr. Conway seems authentically sad to Son, in the cheerful, medicated sort of way. His sunglasses hang from blue cotton retainers over the open collar of a tan work shirt. His house is very quiet and clean. Son doesn’t like to hang around, no, he can’t fish this afternoon. Mr. Conway tries to push some fresh tomatoes on him, red-green orbs in each hand, but Son refuses and lugs the go bag over his shoulders. He doesn’t want them to go to waste. His mother would never cook with them.
The next day, he receives a letter with no return address, then an encrypted email with instructions for how to decrypt the letter.
Alert S-5. Dawn Minus Seven. Confirm.
The Porta Potties will quickly become unspeakable. Mealtime riots, rations served once daily in a crush of bodies, no milk at all. A shadow economy will emerge, moist skin and freeze-dried meat, commodities traded in the dark.
Son ensures that the papers in the go bag are in order. After sundown he jogs to the gas station and makes a maximum withdrawal at the ATM. There are signs for missing dogs on the telephone poles, three different dogs, two mutts and a shepherd, Casper, Duncan, and Cleopatra who answers to Cleo. He wonders if they set out together, how many more will go missing in the coming week. It’s in the air. He considers the agitated conversation of the crickets. Tomorrow, great clouds of birds in the sky, thousands of hamsters dead in their cages, heads smashed against the bars.
He tries to shower away his panic. These are the final days, so these are the final showers. He runs the water hot.
In the morning his mother informs him that she will no longer be doing his laundry.
“It’s about time that you take a little more responsibility for yourself,” she says. She scrambles his eggs. Her voice is hesitant, half choked. These are his father’s words in his mother’s mouth, Son knows. His father has been discussing the deadbeat son at work, in the steam room after a round at the private club before a fundraising dinner in the private room. Subversion techniques, disinformation campaigns. Voices hissing in mist.
Walking to work, he hears the sound of a plane tearing the air above blanketed clouds the color of loose change. Troy is gone. No explanation is given. The men’s bathroom is out of order.
Son is silent at the dinner table, as always, ever since he gave up trying to pry open their eyes. His mother asks if he talks at all to friends he hasn’t seen in years, she runs into their mothers at the market. Pete is doing great, she’s heard, grad school. Eddie’s doing great, San Francisco. Fabio is doing great, big job, serious girlfriend, never misses Sunday supper. Katie informs Son that he stinks like burnt muffins.
After dinner he takes the radio out of the go bag and listens to the game at his desk. His father watches downstairs, Son can hear the play-by-play. The television broadcast is on a delay. His father’s information is dated. Son knows of the inning-ending double play while his father sits down there with his elbows on his thighs like an expectant idiot.
They will be unprepared. Son will be gone days before they think to evacuate. They will weigh themselves down with useless things, knotted chargers, a flashlight with dead batteries. There will be no available cots. His father will squeeze obsolete cash in his fist. The Porta Potties will quickly become unspeakable. Mealtime riots, rations served once daily in a crush of bodies, no milk at all. A shadow economy will emerge, moist skin and freeze-dried meat, commodities traded in the dark. Then they’ll be told they’re being evacuated, a caravan will transport them to a site with central air, plentiful hot food, an Internet connection, ice cream. They’ll be told to wait in a line in back of the tent.
At the start of the eighth inning, Son sneaks into his parents’ bedroom. The lockbox is on a shelf in the closet. His father uses the same code for everything, 1163. The pistol gleams blackly in little light.
• • •
Five dawns after receiving the shock-five alert, he waits by a pay phone in the dim enclave of three closed stores, metal gates pulled over empty window displays and blank walls. There’s a faint mildew stink and a deserted shoeshine stand.
The mall is quiet except for the trickle of a fountain somewhere. Son checks the time and swallows his neural activation capsule. He’s not sure where he’ll be told to go, how much time he’ll have to get there. He hates having no sense of the shape of what looms.
At the top of the hour he lifts the receiver and waits. It’s slick and cold against his face, city traffic on the other end.
“You can feel it on the subway.”
“What’s the ETA? What are we talking about here? How big?”
He’s not sure where he’ll be told to go, how much time he’ll have to get there. He hates having no sense of the shape of what looms.
“Big. Bigger than big.”
“Where am I going?”
“I think someone’s been faking my voice.”
“Cut the shit, all right.”
“I’m serious. My dad asks me, ‘What was with that voicemail at 3 am?’ I said, ‘I never called you.’ I asked him to play the message. He refused.”
“This better not be the reason.”
“This is serious.”
“I’m standing here ready to ghost.”
“This is serious. I didn’t get the invite to Montauk.”
“The future is decided in Montauk, you know. Over frozen rosé.”
“I don’t give a fuck about Montauk.”
“What’s your issue? You been leaving your mouth open in the shower, or what?”
“I didn’t think this was another spy-call play date. You’re abusing the system.”
“You sound like them. You don’t even know that this is me. The technology exists. You could be talking to them right now and you wouldn’t know it. Dominic might be dead with word of the plague on his lips, no sign of trauma.”
“You should be more careful. I could have told you, ‘Meet me at the Exit 13 park and ride at oh one hundred hours,’ and you would’ve walked into their van, never seen again.” Dominic continues talking.
Before leaving for the mall, Son wrote a note and a shopping list and placed them on the kitchen counter by the outlet where the phone chargers live.
Best of luck to you all. I’m sorry to leave like this, but I think we can all agree I haven’t belonged in this unit for some time. I’m not sure how much time you have, but here are some things you will need regardless the variety of doom. Avoid major highways, head for a temperate climate, and try to link up with others, preferably someone skilled in bushcraft. Do NOT rely on gov assistance. Sorry for taking the van + dad’s gun.
He presses his eyeballs. There is no way he can get to the house before his mother gets home from spin.
“So I say to him, ‘Dad, I’m fine, all right, I’m working my ass off—’”
Son hangs up. And when he takes his hand from his eyes, he sees a man and a young boy pass in the hall. He swings the go bag over his shoulders. He follows, waiting for a reason to stop, but he feels weighed down. He considers ditching his pack by the trashcans, but he doesn’t want to cause any panic.
They head in the direction of the food court. The man has a large bag slung over his shoulder but no shopping bags. He walks fast, leading the boy by the hand. The duffle bag appears empty. He has a duffle bag to receive a large sum of cash upon successful delivery.
Son stays thirty feet back, in blind spots, behind kiosks for slippers, phone cases, and remote-controlled helicopters. The guy keeps his head on a swivel. He is on the shorter side, grayish hair under a red hat with a bent brim, conspicuously inconspicuous. The boy wears gray sweatpants and a green shirt with long, chewed sleeves. He looks five, six years old, plump cheeks, fluffy dark hair.
Son wants to stop following, but the boy lags, looks back, fingers of the free hand in his mouth. No one seems to notice them. If one other person gives a long look, he’ll peel off and take a walk on the beach before his father has him institutionalized. But no one is looking, they are asleep, heads bowed to lighted glass, continuously feeding.
He thinks of the mother. Unconscious on the floor of a stall in a department store bathroom. Waking hours later to the endless torture of never knowing for sure.
He pretends to study the map by the entrance to the food court. If they stay and eat, take their time, he’ll go. If the mall cop notices them. If the guy doesn’t order dessert, if he doesn’t give the kid dessert before lunch, Son will stop following, but he hands the cone over as they make for the door.
If they are parked far from the Odyssey, Son will take down the plates and stop following, but their car is two rows away, a 2007 Toyota Matrix, gray. If the car has Rhode Island plates, but, no, New Hampshire plates. If he loses them at a stoplight, but he catches the yellow. If they head north. If they get off the highway he’ll tail them to the house and dump the info on Submondon before he’s locked in a room with a drain in the floor.
He stays eight light poles back in an adjacent lane for forty miles. The go bag rides shotgun. He’ll stop following if they speed, if they switch lanes without signaling, if they litter. In the shadow of an overpass, Son leans toward the windshield and squints, if there’s a taillight out. If they don’t cross state lines.
His phone rings nonstop until he turns it off, his heart booms in his ears. He would stop following, but he’s sure they’re headed for a garage below a building on Park Avenue, where the boy will be transported to the roof in the service elevator, where a helicopter waits to lift him into the clouds, and Son’s seen video from where he’ll land, from all the places without windows, ten seconds of video that kept him in his room for three years and forever skeptical of minivans with tint like the one he drives to work on Fridays and now. If he runs out of gas, he’ll have to stop.
It’s dark out, he’s been tailing for two hours, the needle hanging below E for the last twenty miles when the guy pulls into a mid-state rest stop. Son parks six pumps away, unzips the front pouch of the go bag, steps out.
The trucks boom by on the interstate, the cars slow down and pull up, back out and catch the pace of the highway, the comings and goings like the action on an anthill. The pumps are equipped with small monitors, baseball highlights and local weather. With the 1911 in his hand, loaded and cocked, and spilled gas in his nose, his stomach kind of falls, he thinks of the caches, the girl abandoned at the side of the road, all the gear he’ll never use, because he’s walking up on a normal-looking guy in a Red Sox hat and a light sweater over collared shirt, yawning as he fits the pump into the tank, his son on the iPad in his car seat, Son sees the light on the kid’s face behind the tinted window and knows the mother is dead, they moved south because daddy couldn’t bear familiar places and the early darkness in the shadows of mountains, but it’s too late, Son is automated by how far he’s come already and the bleak sweep of what’s ahead, and he wants answers, proof that he’s wrong about everything, proof that nothing too sinister or complicated happens in the fog.
He raises the barrel to the lights of the canopy for a warning shot and squints, bracing himself for the sound, and hears someone running and the pop of dropped sodas, one in a cup, which spills ice and Coke, and one in a bottle, which spins, panicked, punctured, and sprays out in a plastic bag that flutters like a leaf moved by a warm doomsday wind.
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