The United States
The eighteen-wheeler rode through a construction zone. Nancy completely disregarded the speed limit change and sped the truck past motorists in the right lane. Gibson looked down from the passenger side into the cars they passed. Being this high up, he could see just about everything. So far, he’d seen a girl with a bong between her legs, a van full of kids playing games in the backseat, about a half-dozen littered floorboards, one female driver drop her milkshake, and one guy getting a hand job.
Mostly he saw empty, dark fields with sporadic lights twinkling like stars. He liked to look at the homes they passed. The yellow lights in the windows were like beacons on a vast sea. It was oddly comforting to see people still up and functioning at this late hour. He often wondered what went on in those houses. Insomnia. Late night chats with strangers on the Internet. Teens happy to be up all night watching movies. TV and video games glowing blue on faces and window panes. Sex. Probably a lot of sex happening right now.
“I don’t know why people slow down,” Nancy muttered. “There ain’t any cops.” She kept the truck steady at 70, passing orange barricades and zoned-out motorists.
Gibson looked into the large side mirror again. All headlights were far behind them. None were getting closer.
“Move, dumbass!” Nancy leaned over the steering wheel. They were stuck behind an SUV. “More accidents happen this way.” She flicked off the car. “I’m gonna lay on my horn here in a minute.”
Gibson saw the golden arches of McDonald’s up ahead. His stomach growled. Side mirror check again. Two tiny lights disappearing behind a hill. Far away.
“Finally!” Nancy stepped on the gas as the SUV merged right. “Can you see who’s in there?” She tried to lean over him to look. “Bet they’re old. See if they’re old.”
He didn’t know what old would be to Nancy. She had smoker’s lines around her lips and a shock of white-gray hair in her ponytail. It was like a skunk’s tail. He looked in the car. “I think he’s like forty.”
“Well that explains it.”
He wasn’t sure that it did. He returned his gaze to the front. There were all kinds of fast food places coming up. Just the signs alone were making him hungry.
Nancy bit into a peach. Juice dripped down her chin and splashed on her cleavage. The ripe scent made his stomach grumble. Nancy wasn’t her real name. At least she wasn’t as scared of him as she was a few hours ago. He’d bribed her with some cash he’d stolen from a wallet at a rest stop near Ironto. She made him pull out all his pockets and dump out his backpack to make sure he had no guns or knives. The whole time she was thinking about her .308 in the cab.
She took another bite of the peach. She saw him looking, and he turned to the window again.
“You want one?” She picked up a paper bag. “Here. Help yourself.”
He didn’t need much convincing. He grabbed a peach and devoured it. His stomach relaxed.
In the glow of the dashboard, she watched him. “How old are you again?”
“Twenty-three,” he lied. She knew it was a lie. In the few hours they’d ridden together they’d each told about a dozen lies. He looked around for a napkin.
“In there.” She pointed to a compartment. He opened it and a flutter of brown and white spilled out.
“Thanks.” He wiped at his T-shirt. The problem was he was too thin. His height just accentuated it. He tried to hide it with the stained clothes he wore, but he looked like a runaway. That’s what she believed: a teenage runaway. But she had no plans to drop him off at a shelter or call any authorities. It wouldn’t do much good anyway. He’d be long gone as soon as she started thinking about it.
Nancy reached behind her, rustled through another paper bag, and pulled out some pretzels. “Here.” She tossed him the bag. “I shouldn’t have those anyway. Too many carbs.”
Gibson tore open the bag and shoveled a handful into his mouth.
“Slow down. You’ll choke.” She handed him a warm bottle of Pepsi. He drank it down and ate more. He glanced at the side mirror again. No headlights. Just an open black hole of highway.
“You know, Jake,” she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Whatever it is your getting away from, it can’t be that bad.”
He emptied the bag and gulped down the Pepsi. He could already the feel the sugar and salt hitting his bloodstream.
“Now, it’s none of my business, but running away from stuff never helps.” She scanned the highway as a crackle voice came over the scanner - BOLO. Bear in the bushes at exit 48.“My step-brother ran away when he was about ten.” She chuckled. “Didn’t get very far, but pert near tried.”
Gibson put the peach pit and empty Pepsi bottle in the empty bag of pretzels. “I told you. I’m meeting up with some friends.”
“And I gotta mansion with a pool.” She swallowed some old coffee and began to slow down as exit 48 loomed ahead. Another eighteen-wheeler tore past them on the left, Cammolite printed on the side. She picked up her radio. “Back it down, Cammolite. Bear at 48.” The truck continued speeding past, yellow trailer lights flickering in the dark. She shook her head. “Better him than me.”
Gibson checked the side mirror. A car behind them was moving into the left lane. He sank down a little in the seat.
“Anyway,” Nancy continued. “He packed up mom’s suitcase. It was too big for him. We found him in the park. You know what he was mad about?” She glanced at him. Gibson shrugged. “Mom forgot to buy the candy he liked. That was it.” She had an asthmatic laugh. “Man, we were so worried. He was gone for hours. Just sitting there in the park with that suitcase.” She shook her head and chuckled again, then her expression turned serious. “One of my girlfriends back in high school ran off. Didn’t turn out so good for her.” She drank the rest of the coffee and tossed the paper cup behind her. “When they found her a few months later, she was behind some trees, strangled to death.”
She was mostly making that up. She was really good at telling stories, though. He had to hand it to her. She’d bragged about her baby grandson during the drive through West Virginia. He was really a preteen that liked to set things on fire. By the time they reached Maryland she was on to the Redskins playing like a bunch of pansies and how she’d been at the Superbowl two years ago. She’d really just watched it in a bar alone.
“My friends live in Watertown,” he told her. “We’re meeting up there.” I-81 was a straight shot to the Canadian border. The maps at rest stops confirmed it. Everybody went to Canada when they were getting away from something. At least, that was what he heard. If the government got too oppressive or not oppressive enough, people just threatened to move to Canada. If they take our guns, we shall march to Canada! If they don’t take our guns - Canada! If Congress doesn’t shape up - Canada! Very few considered Mexico. Canada was for the righteous. Mexico was for the criminals.
Gibson felt more righteous.
“Whatever you say, Jake.” She flipped the turn signal and began to slow.
“Wait, where are you going?” Gibson looked at the side mirror again. There were a pair of headlights far behind them.
Nancy didn’t answer as she pulled off the highway and turned into the Flying J Truck Stop, all lit up and bustling with truckers and sleepy-eyed college kids. Stopping here hadn’t crossed her mind at all. Was he just not paying attention?
She pulled the truck into a covered area. All around were other tractor trailers, dark and still with sleeping occupants. It was getting noisy in his head. Someone nearby was thinking about what to eat for breakfast. Here came another thought about prostitutes. He wished for some headphones and music cranked as loud as it would go.
“Your ride ends here, buddy.” She looked at him with sympathy.
“No, I said Binghamton. You said you’d take me to Binghamton.” He looked past her at the exit. A car was coming down the ramp. The only car.
“I know.” She reached into her pocket and counted out the money he’d given her. “Take this and call your folks. There’s some showers here.” She unbuckled and went into the bunk behind the seats.
He watched the car pull in. His throat began to close up.
Nancy handed him some detergent and dryer sheets. “You can wash your clothes, too. You look like hell, kiddo.” She sat back down and reached under the seat for some Morleys. She pulled one from the pack with her lips, lit it, and rolled the window down. “Somebody out there is worried sick about you. Do the right thing, okay?”
Through the smoke, he watched the car door open. A group of girls with anime characters on their tops hopped out. His heart rate slowed.
Nancy exhaled. “I can’t tell you what to do, being that your twenty-three and all.” She eyed him up and down. “But you gotta tell somebody where you are. I just know they need to hear from you. I would if you were my kid.”
Bazelle and Wayne were not worried sick over him. If anything, they’d been pissed he wasn’t there to provide such a luxurious income. They were probably coaching some other poor kid on how to play chess and sorely disappointed with the results.
“I appreciate your concern,” he said. “But I really need to get to Binghamton. I’ve got more money.” He grabbed his backpack and unzipped it. He wasn’t sure how much he had left.
“No.” She held up her hand. “Just go on in, get yourself a shower, clean clothes, and a hot meal. If you really need to, I’m sure you’ll find another ride.” She sighed. “I just don’t feel right about it.”
He didn’t care if she felt right about it or not. “I don’t have anybody to call, okay? My parents are dead. I just need to get to Binghamton. My friends are waiting on me.”
She pursed her lips and took another drag. “You kill somebody?”
“Drugs? You been stealing or something?”
“No. I just want to see my friends.”
“Honey, I know there aren’t any friends.”
He swallowed. “Fine. There’s not. I just need to get out of here.”
She scratched her chin and looked around. All the trucks were quiet as graves. This was a popular rest spot. Cars were pulling out onto the road, leaving the parking lot empty. He watched the anime girls get back in and drive off. Gibson looked over at the truck next to them. The yellow lights on the trailer were on. He could see the silhouette of the driver in the seat. He looked at the letters on the side and his stomach sank.
“I don’t know…,” Nancy shook her head. “I don’t think this is right.”
Gibson slowly reached for his backpack, not taking his eyes from the truck. “Let’s go in and talk about it.”
“First promise me you’ll call somebody. Anybody.”
“I will.” Cammolite gleamed against the trailer. The driver was still, watching them. “I promise. Let’s go in.”
Nancy took another drag and picked at a hangnail. “If I take you to Binghamton, you gonna be all right?”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine. Let’s go in. Now.”
The driver got out of the cab and came towards them. Another guy got out of the passenger side. They both had guns.
“Run!” He shouted at Nancy. “Run inside!”
“What?” She dropped her cigarette.
“Run!” He screamed.
A bullet came through the windshield and through Nancy’s head. She slumped forward, the weight of her leaning on the horn. The passenger door opened and Gibson was pulled out. He tumbled onto the pavement and felt a kick in his ribs. He tried to roll under the truck.
“Little punk!” The man snarled. He grabbed Gibson’s collar, dragging him out, but he broke away and ran towards the entrance. That voice. It was familiar. There was no way it was him. It couldn’t possibly be him.
Gibson ran inside, looked around, and saw a sign for the showers. He looked behind him to see the profile of Alex Krycek nearly colliding with a shelf of granola bars. Gibson ran for the showers and saw a door marked vacant. He ran inside, shut it, and locked it. There was a sound, a shot through a silencer, and a body falling to the floor.
Shouts and then nothing but the faint whine of Nancy’s horn in the lot.
He looked around the shower room. There was a shelf, a stall behind a curtain, a urinal, and a toilet. He looked for a window or a vent, but saw only tile from floor to ceiling. He needed an edge. Something sharp. Something heavy. He grabbed onto the shower rod and pulled as hard as he could. It was stuck tight into the wall.
He knocked everything off the shelf and tipped it over, shoving it against the door. He found a metal chair and piled it on top. There was a wooden towel rack behind the toilet. He dumped off the towels and began to pound the shelves loose with his fist until it bled. He wrapped his hand up in a towel and punched and kicked until a chunk of wood splintered off. He held it out of in front of him backing up towards the stall.
There was a bang on the door. A kick. Another one. Then two, three kicks in rapid succession. The door lock broke and it caught against the shelf. Gibson stood behind the curtain, and thought wildly about what to do. He turned the shower on as hot as it would go while the two men wrestled with the shelf.
The room began to fill with steam. They were having a hard time with the shelf. The chair fell and struck one of them. He cursed. The steamy heat made Gibson’s shirt cling to his skin. It soaked into the sweat on his hands and the slice of wood became slippery.
The men didn’t say a word and they were trying not to think. The shelf gave way and they were inside. Gibson ran from behind the shower curtain, out of the steam, and stabbed as hard as he could, the sharp edge plunging into one man’s eye. The man screamed and fell back. The other one body slammed Gibson onto the tile and there was an explosion of stars before his eyes when his head collided with the floor.
“It’s over, you son of a bitch!” The man backhanded him, his knuckles smashing into Gibson’s nose.
A tunnel closed around his vision, but before he blacked out he saw the man wasn’t Alex Krycek. And the one stumbling around with the wooden shard in his eye wasn’t him either.
But Gibson saw him. He saw Alex Krycek as he lost consciousness, leaning on a car horn, the blast of sound penetrating a dark road, a tractor trailer flipping and tumbling to where he stood, laughing at strangled girls behind trees.
Gibson woke with a start when he heard the clanging and beeping outside of his cell door. At first, he couldn’t tell who or what it was, punching numbers into the key pad. The bulbs that hung along the ceiling were old and dim. He turned over on his cot, when he saw the woman in a ragged hospital gown slide the door open and run over to him.
“Come on!” She whispered urgently. “We’re getting out of here!”
He looked at her, horrified. Despite the burns on her face and chunks of her blonde hair missing from her scalp, she looked vaguely familiar. He tried to recall if she’d been on the beach with all of them before the Jamaican officers dragged them all into a truck and drove them off the beach to this place.
Whatever this place was.
It must have been used as a jail by colonists centuries ago. Wrought iron and brick, the place smelled ancient. It was underground, too, so there was no way to escape that he knew. He’d noticed as soon as they’d thrown him in here that his ability to hear thoughts had been clouded somehow. It wasn’t like it used to be. What had they done to him? And his skin crawled with something. It felt like slugs were moving through his veins at times.
Gibson had lost all sense of time, but he’d figured out they’d been inside that…thing, frozen like icicles for six years. Had this freakish looking woman been in there, too?
“Who are you?” Gibson asked her, as she tried to pull him up off his cot. “I’m not leaving until you tell me who you are.”
She paused for a second, looking him over with icy blue eyes that glowed. “I can’t believe this is you,” she seemed amazed. “Such a man now. Deep voice and all. They did very well with you. It’s a waste to keep you holed up in this place.”
He stared at her, uncomfortable. He didn’t like the way she was looking at him; with pride almost. Who in the hell was this woman?
“You can still do it though, right?” She asked him desperately. She pointed to her head. “Can you hear what I’m thinking?”
He tried for a second, but it was clouded, muffled, like someone trying to talk through a pillow.
He slowly shook his head, and she yanked him up onto his feet.
“Maybe you’ll get it back, but we have to go. Now.”
He stopped her. “Please tell me who you are! Where are we going?”
She pulled him out of his cell. “I’m your saving grace. And you’re mine. We need each other to make it out of here. You need to trust me, Gibson.”
How did she know his name? It wasn’t like it was written down anywhere.
He noticed she was limping, one of her legs looked bad, it was bruised and her hospital gown stuck to the dried blood on her thigh. She was missing all of her toenails.
“What did they do to you?” He asked her. “Is that what they were going to do to me?”
“Worse,” she replied. “Much worse.”
He began to panic as he followed her through corridors mixed with old colonial walls and modern metal doors. This wasn’t right. Where was everyone? There was usually noise up and down these hallways, all day and all night. He’d gotten used to the sounds. But this place was abandoned now.
Something wasn’t right.
He noticed she moved rather quickly with her limp. She had to be in pain. He followed her nervously, wondering if she was taking him somewhere to be killed, then he started hearing shuffling from some of the other cells.
“Marita!” Someone shouted. “You can’t leave us here!”
“Don’t leave us here!” Came another shout.
Gibson turned back to see a man he definitely remembered from before. Deep brown skin, and hard, stone-cold eyes. He gripped the bars of his cell, the fear all over his face.
“Marita!” He screamed after them. “They’re gone! We’re going to die down here!”
She ignored all of them and kept going.
“Why don’t we let them out?” Gibson asked her, hesitating for a minute. It seemed wrong to leave them if they were escaping.
She grabbed his arm and said viciously, “They’ll kill us!”
Panicked shouts and pleading followed them as they made their way to an elevator. It looked odd at the end of the corridor, metal doors and keypads next to iron sconces and ancient brick.
They went inside and she began punching numbers into the keypad.
“How do you know to do that? How do you know the way out?” He asked her, starting to feel uneasy. Maybe he shouldn’t have come with her, but the faint cloud of thoughts coming from her suggested she was genuinely trying to help him. And help herself, too.
“If you hear any of them,” she commanded. “Any of them at all, you tell me, okay?”
He knew who she was talking about, but he hadn’t heard them at all. It was strange. Where had all of them gone?
When the elevator doors opened, it looked like they were inside of a post office. A post office that a gust of wind that come through and stirred up everything. Packaging, envelopes, and tape was strewn about everywhere. The Jamaican flag had been torn off one wall, one half of it missing.
The front doors were wide open as they ran out into the night into the city of Kingston. Gibson was petrified at what he saw.
Kingston was on fire.
Georgian structures all along King Street were blazing. Men and women cheering it on as they ran up and down the streets, ripping apart the Jamaican flag, dragging books to be burned out of the Parish Library. He briefly saw the silhouettes of other men and women, dressed in black, armed to the teeth, surgical masks over their faces, UNION, scrawled across the vests they wore. They held their rifles in the air, and people cheered. People got out of their way, applauding them like this was some kind of twisted parade.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the same thing was happening in Havana and San Juan; the furor island-hopping around the Caribbean.
“Come on,” Marita demanded, dragging him away from the rioting.
“What in the hell is happening?” He asked her.
“Whatever it is, it’s saving us right now!”
The people were far too distracted to notice the disfigured white woman in a hospital gown and young man in worn-out scrubs running away from the chaos. They probably looked like escaped lunatics. She took them into a tourist shop, the doors smashed through, and began digging through the clothes.
“Change your clothes!” She instructed. “We have to look like tourists!”
He turned away from her, shocked, as she ripped her hospital gown right off in front him. There were slashes and burns all over her.
God, what on earth had she been through?
He removed the scrubs he’d been wearing and put on jeans that didn’t fit quite right and a T-Shirt with Bob Marley’s face on it. He had no idea what size clothes he wore anymore. Definitely not child sized.
Marita put on a dress with a tropical scene printed on it, then yelped with pain, grabbing her leg.
“Shouldn’t we take you to a hospital?” He said, going over to her.
“You think there’s really still a hospital still standing out there!” She pointed at the door.
She crammed a hat over her head to hide her face and scalp, and they made a run for it to the harbor. He followed her as they ran straight for a cruise ship, Royal Caribbean, printed on the side. They were getting swept up in a crowd of white tourists trying to board the ship before it left.
“How are we going to get on here?” He asked her, as they ran alongside panicked tourists, desperately trying to get away.
“There’s too many of us for them to count!” She replied. “Just pretend like you belong on here!”
There was someone at the entrance trying to scan everyone’s passes as they came onboard, but the scanner had stopped working. Gibson and Marita managed to push past the people with the scanners and upon to the lower deck without incident.
As soon as they were on the ship, Marita collapsed into a lounge chair, crying and laughing at once. “We did it! We got away! We did it!”
She pressed her hands to her mouth, laughing erratically as Gibson looked out at burning Kingston.
What in the hell was happening?
He looked over at Marita, blood was starting to leak through her dress from the wound on her leg. God, the pain she must be in.
“I’m going to go find you a doctor or something,” he told her, but she didn’t seem to hear him.
“They can’t kill me!” She repeated to herself over and over. “They will never be able to kill me!”
She laugh-cried again, and he felt uneasy as he looked at her.
He didn’t know then what this all meant. He didn’t know then what he had gotten himself into. And he didn’t know then that he would owe her more than he would ever be able to repay.
And she would never, ever let him forget it.