I was Set Free. (I’ll Be Your Friend.)
I was driving in the dark. Snow was all around. Blizzard conditions. I was way outside the Perimeter. The Authority was searching for me. But Outside was much larger than Inside. And I had heard the Authority had no jurisdiction.
I had been set free. The puzzles were slowly congregating in my mind. I couldn’t think of that now. I couldn’t thank my maker, on my knees, thanking him for the elixir and the grease that gave me the fight to soldier on when things looked bleakest, when I thought eternity would be spent in a controlled situation, where all hope and love were lost, where no one was concerned about my well-being.
I couldn’t think of how that ended. I was too young to go quietly in the night. But now, I had to focus. I couldn’t see. Sandy Brown, my old Subaru wagon, was chugging along fine, but I couldn’t see, heading south on Interstate 81 in Virginia. It was 4 in the morning. A massive cloud formation was headed southeast. I had watched the trajectory on the television in my 34 dollar motel room, before going to bed. 8 inches projected. In between me and my destination to the south. I figured it would be a long day of driving, if the Interstate stayed opened. With that much snow, the road would be closed for at least half the day, traffic snarled, and my 6 hour drive would take about 16.
I woke up with an idea at 3:30 am. Beat the storm. I could drive through the leading edge safely before there was significant accumulation. There would be hardly any traffic, so the risk of collision was minimal, even with compromised travel conditions.
I had everything packed by 4:10 or so. I loaded up Sandy and drove to the front of the hotel complex and went into the office to check out. No one was there. I looked around. I heard a voice but saw no one.
“I’ll be right there,” a lovely lilting hardscrabble voice rang true through the empty lobby. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Have you been waiting long?”
“No. 30 seconds.”
“30 minutes?! I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, thank god. I thought you said minutes.”
I poured some coffee into a paper cup, watching as the hot brown liquid colored in the rounded lines of the white smooth cup. I added sugar and a couple of flavored creamers. I needed a treat. There were no treats. A sweet muffin or something.
Life was still good. Being out of prison made everything seems fresher. Brighter. I was brimming with joy. The clerk must have thought I was some kind of goofball. I didn’t mind. I restarted the happy song I was listening to on my little maroon device that played digital audio files. The clerk went behind the desk to her position of authority. I approached from the front with my coffee.
I was set free.
Calm, Clean Pools of Water
I was driving. I was flying. I couldn’t believe it was happening. No monitors. No tracking. Floating down the old interstate that hugged the fall line in southern Virginia. To the west were the wind weathered mountains, to the east the sandy flats of the coastal plains began. I zoomed along at 75, Sandy Brown humming along, spinning like a top.
It was 5:30 in the morning. The rising of the sun would be such a welcome event. I was going as fast as I could, trying to beat the enormous storm bearing down on the region. There was hardly any traffic. Maybe a vehicle every couple of miles. Most were long-haul truckers. I tried to find one going fast enough and trailed along behind, drafting and dodging the wind.
The two lane high-speed highway was now only one lane in the snow. Blizzard conditions made it nearly impossible to see. With the high beams on, I could see only a few feet in front of me, a wall of bright white snow in front of me. With low beams, the visibility was ok. I just followed the lights in front of me. I kept the windows open, so I had an idea of what I was driving over. Everything around was blanketed with white. Nearly an inch had already fallen. In the next few hours, the interstate would be closed and there would be miles and miles of backed up traffic going nowhere.
Before I left the hotel, Rae Lynn, the clerk, had been pretty concerned about the weather. Her chickens were out and the dogs sometimes harass them when it snowed. The chickens got scared in the snow and everyone around knew it. Rae Lynn wanted to go home to check, but she was on duty and she feared her little 1987 VW Jetta wouldn’t make it down the hill that the hotel was on, without slipping into the gulch.
I told her I could give her a ride in Sandy Brown to check on her chickens if she really needed to go. Sandy had all wheel drive.
She was so appreciative. I didn’t even do anything. Just offered to do something. Just said the words. But I meant it. It was really no problem.
I asked her if she had ever been to Boone, North Carolina, which was my destination that day.
“I’ve never been out of the state.”
“It’s a beautiful state.”
“It’s gonna be dangerous out there. You should stay another night. I can comp you a room.”
“Yeah. I have the Authority.”
I panicked for a hot second. Visions of a codeine-induce haze, being shuffled around the correctional facility in Venue rushed into my field of vision. My thoughts collided with horrific memories of the recent past. I excused myself to use the restroom and get more coffee. I went into a stall and collapsed in front of commode and began to weep uncontrollably and shake softly, a silent rhythm taking over my core. I rocked on the balls of my feet, held onto the black plastic seat for balance and looked into the calm, clean pool of water, surrounded by a cave of porcelain. I breathed in, got up and sat down for a brief respite.
The Popular Nomenclature of Cute Candy Characters.
It took about 8 minutes. After cleaning up and splashing some cold water on my face to re-enter an approximation of reality that was on track with that of the Others, I went back to the lobby to chat further with Rae Lynn. Our conversation had not yet resolved itself, and that’s one of the things the Authority monitors – abrupt endings of conversations without the proper desultory parting gifts and denouement of stimuli level.
I asked about Rae Lynn’s chickens. I was surprised to hear that they were fight chickens. I had heard of such things in folklore, but had never encountered any. There was not much to encounter in Venue. I nearly took up Rae Lynn on her offer of a complimentary room for the night if it meant I could give her a lift later after her shift to her hollow and perhaps have an opportunity to glimpse the legendary pugilists at rest.
But I desisted. Resisted the plenary indulgence that made my cells cycle faster, apoptosis abounding at a greater frequency throughout. Giddiness almost. I rocked a bit on the balls of my feet, resting my freshly filled coffee cup on the customer counter.
“You really should delay your departure.”
“I have an important meeting in Hot Springs on Friday.”
“But it’s only Thursday.”
“I don’t want to be late.”
“You must be good with maps.”
“I forgot mine.”
I showed her my compass.
“I’ve never used one.”
“The red arrow points to the north.”
I sipped and watched as she gingerly manipulated my compass, trying to align the N and the red arrow.
“That way,” she said, pointing to the north.
The coffee started firing things in me that never awoke in Venue. Perhaps because of the cocktail of psychotropics that had shrouded my souls. Under duress of confinement, I had assented and most of my days in Venue were a pock-marked haze of ups and downs, with weekly appointments for a thing the Authority called “M and M.” Medication management. The “and” was” superfluous. They were just trying to capitalize on the ubiquity of the popular nomenclature of cute candy characters. It was demeaning. I had screamed in anguish on many occasions. Now, supposedly, I was set free. Unencumbered by pharmaceuticals. The world was my oyster.
Then how come I felt so bad?
A Cool Lawyer.
Sandy Brown was rumbling along like a flower in a sirocco, petals renewed by a warm breeze flexing and expanding and moisturizing. Here, the winds were gale force, pelting Sandy’s metal with snow and ice chunks as she chugged along at 60 miles an hour, slipping through the channel in the snow made by the tractor trailer in front.
I didn’t feel like driving. I just wanted to go back to bed and sleep until daylight. Rest and dream like everyone else. Instead I was fighting to stay awake. The radio was not much help. Bruno Mars would not stop bragging about his hot new girlfriend. Please. The coffee just went right through me.
I had to stop.
I stopped the car at the foot of an exit that climbed a small incline up to a bridge. The exit coming down might be too icy. No point risking sliding into a gulch. I turned off the car and flipped on the flashers. I went outside and stretched. My black fleece jacketed was blanketed with snow in seconds. It was almost as bad as my dandruff. It looked like dandruff. Really big flakes of dandruff.
I went over to the passenger side of Sandy and let loose a stream fueled by Roanoke hotel lobby coffee. It was refreshing, with the icy flakes swooshing around me, a nice cool breeze invigorating me. After closing up shop, I breathed in and out deeply, thinking about flowers and freshness, alternating thoughts with each inhalation and exhalation. It freed my mind from the detritus. The worrying stopped. The fear of the unknown that was Hot Springs faded into the background. All that was in my mind was the fresh night air and the driving snow. The silence and the lights moving in the distance all around me. The quiet, muted sound of a tractor trailer trudging through a few inches of snow.
I thought about Leila. We hadn’t spoken in 14 years. I couldn’t believe she wanted to see me. I didn’t know what she wanted. I thought she hated me.
We met 16 years ago, in New York City. Walking down the street in the East Village with Chauncey, a small white two door Japanese hatchback slowed down next to us. We were on the sidewalk.
“Hey babes! You fellas wanna go for a ride with us? We’re going to Coney Island.” A Southern bell of an invitation rang out under the blue sky of the afternoon.
I couldn’t see why not. Three beautiful lasses, the driver wearing glasses, looked at us with smiling faces.
We got in. Chauncey and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We had nowhere to be. I’d never been to Coney Island. It would be nice to see the water and watch the seagulls.
I got in first. Sitting by the window on the driver’s side was Leila, draped in white linen, the slightest hint of amber accompanying her laughing questions.
“What kind of lawyer are you?” she asked after I told her I was headed to the Appalachian Mountains to start practicing law. I thought about what I would be doing down there. Representing coal miners with black lung, trying to get medical benefits. Protecting domestic violence victims from abusive spouses.
“A cool lawyer.”
Electric Eyes Began to Wink.
I made it. I got to my favorite eatery and the fluffy cottony snow filled the parking lot. It was still dark. A couple of hours until sunrise. I found my black folding communicator and got a steaming sausage biscuit. The coffee-toned décor was so calming after such a harrowing experience. I was shaking with joy, so happy to be among the living was I.
There were only one or two other diners. The woman at the counter was so relieved that I made it through the blizzard. She treated me like her son, concerned and worried about my welfare, even though she never met me. And she got me some food.
The eatery was on the cloud. I connected to the unsecure signal and peered into the network to see if there was any activity. Any evidence that I was being followed or monitored. Any messages from friends that were obviously coopted scared Perimeter denizens who wanted nothing more than to be happy and to ensure complied with the demands of the Authority.
I hadn’t been on the Cloud since leaving the Perimeter. After a few minutes of writing messages and checking the weather forecast, a devastating realization had me nearly doubled over in fits of reverse peristalsis. The communicator's protocol designated aperture would be immediately sent to the network compendium of active users. The Authority was surely monitoring my aperture settings and would be notified the instant I was on the Cloud.
They knew where I was.
I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea. I had to get to Hot Springs. That was without question. I had to see Leila. That was the only thing. Nothing would stop me. The last blizzard of the decade couldn’t slow me down. In fact, it motivated me. Energized me. I was way ahead of schedule. So fearful was I of being late, of not making it, of getting there and the innkeeper telling me Leila had left in a huff. I imagined her calling me, the first time in 14 years, to tell me she would never talk to me again. I didn’t think I could take it.
I had to get to Hot Springs.
I could beat the Authority. They didn’t have the monitoring systems in place outside the Perimeter. They had a loose collection of information that didn’t have the requisite standard of reliability. They had no jurisdiction to manhandle scofflaws Outside. But that never stopped them before.
I went to the counter, ordered a coffee and moved to another booth, out of the line of sight of the people working the grill and the counter. Daylight was around the corner. Aureate rays shimmered in the snow. Lights connected to electric eyes began to wink and finally close for the duration.
The coffee was sweet. It matched the décor. And my eyes. I went back to the counter.
“Biscuit and a sausage.”
“That all for ya, now?”
I slid a crumpled one and six pennies over the formica counter, got my food and returned to my booth and black communicator.
People Hate Commuting.
The signals were busting out all around me. I just didn’t notice. The monitor in the bathroom, the one with the big D battery and the little revolving piece of paper and a moving ink source that made some sort of graph. The solar power motion lights outside of the eatery. The wireless headsets. The communications channel between the point of sale and the screen above the food preparers stainless steel workstation. The forced air that smelled faintly of almonds. Wasn’t that a tell-tale sign for cyanide? I should look that up on my communicator. Outside the Perimeter, the public knowledge aggregator was still accessible.
I drank more coffees and unloaded more crumpled ones. I let loose stream after stream of distraught messages to my friends on the network, pleading with them for sanctuary and advice. I didn’t know what to do. How will I ever break free of the Perimeter if its tentacles are all over the Outside?
I shook my head in sync with an invisible rhythm. I remember how Ray made fun of me that day. All rhythms are invisible. I think he punctuated it with some sort of expletive. I cannot repeat it. So crass, I am not. I am dignified and dainty. I can go wherever I want with aplomb. Then why was I so afraid?
My eye-colored coffee was steamy. I hoped Hot Springs would be steamy. I didn’t know if they were actually real. Maybe just some sort of marketing gimmick to attract visitors to a run-down town. My nasal passages could use some aerating. My senses could use a decrease of collisions. My mind could use a lower level of palaver. I could really use a bath. It had been a few days. My fashion consultant I hired in Washington, D.C., in preparation for my Hot Springs rendezvous, told my in no uncertain terms I need to be attentive to my hygiene.
The night before I headed to Roanoke, I stumbled upon a Red Door. Beyond was a world unimaginable. As I was leaving the gathering, my fashion consultant held out a hand for shaking.
“I took a bath today. For the first time in three days.” I said as we shook hands. I couldn’t think of an appropriate parting repartee to her hand-proffering. I just said what popped into my head. Life Outside was lovely indeed. Most of Washington, oddly enough, was out of the bounds of the Perimeter. A small enclave included the capitol complex. Another included the White House. But just a few blocks away, within site of the dome and the obelisk, was a band of merry brothers, making music and nearly making visible the unfound sounds, the tribal rhythms. Ray was there, beyond the Red Door, in spirit. I missed him. I could barely function without him.
My fashion consultant drew me closer with a well-placed hand. She yelled in my ear above the din of the sonic revelers. “You need to take a bath EVERY day.”
Miss Bossy. Probably good advice.
I finished my eye-colored coffee and removed the detritus from my network cove. Too much canned ham. I couldn’t see the filet mignon. Or the fresh salmon. Sure, I’d like to find out how to make $6487 a month At HOME. I guess people hate commuting. The allure of the home-based income. $68.74 Samsung LED TV’s and $23.74 Apple iPads. The fours and the sevens glared at me like the sun. There was nothing like the sun. Maybe this was a message? From Ray? Telling me to stay away from Hot Springs? Or to go there for sanctuary? I didn’t know what to do.
Travel at This Time Was Not Recommended.
I was clean. Before I set out to beat the storm, I had taken a hot, steamy shower. I was steamed. A bottle of Dr. Bruner’s lavender soap helped in the task. The aroma emanating from underneath my sweater was like flowers on a warm, spring day with rainbows and ducks roasting in the oven. Plenty to consider and all wows aflutter. A brilliant slipstream. A rangeful of wonder. Delectable to the most discerning palate. A scent to be bottled up and cherished for 14 years, sealed tightly and opened only a few times and still strong after all those years.
I wasn’t ready. I needed more time before the next leg of the journey. The coffees had been sufficiently invigorating. One more and the jitterbugs would start lap-dancing on my brain. Or brain-dancing. The plumbing needed maybe 20 minutes more and a few more opportunities to unload the last of the astringent substance that was formerly the eatery’s premium roast brewed coffees.
The eye-colored eyes needed some shut eye.
At my booth, I closed the communicator after checking a penultimate time for any details that could inform my journey. I was at a loss as to how to process and apply anything at this point, but if my network cloud jumping could amount to anything significant, all evidence should be accessed in as close to real time as possible.
There was nothing.
The eyelids slowly rested into the “do-not-disturb” position for what I hoped would be 11 minutes. I kept a gloved hand on the communicator to deter thieves. Thieves were rampant Outside. That was the word on the network.
When the eyelids opened, 16 minutes had passed. That was ok. I had feared 42 minutes. Then it would be difficult to reboot the hard drive and wake up. The communicator was on standby and responded instantly after I swiped my index finger over the biometric analyzer. A green light flashed and it unfolded slowly. A soft light pulsed, slowly attaining a luminosity that responded to the dilation changes of my eye’s pupils. It grew too bright for a few pulses, noted the changes in my eyes, grew too dim and then finally went black and began to glow brighter and brighter until reaching the perfect level for the room’s conditions, the reflective qualities of my spectacles and my eye’s responsiveness. A sense of comfort and release permeated through my body, starting at the eyes and radiating outward until it reached my toes and began to bounce all over, until I felt energized and soothed at the same time.
I began to look at the network and saw nothing out of the ordinary. More unwanted solicitations, requests for recipes from former cooking school friends, and requests for interpretations of statutes from litigants who were looking for help. I couldn’t help anyone right now. I needed information of my own.
I was about to recross the fall line. Boone and my destination, the Boone Saloon, were only 50 miles away. But that was 50 miles over windy, narrow roads that traversed several mountain passes with sheer drop-offs throughout. The possibility of ending up in a gulch, Sandy Brown on her back, tires flailing frictionless, was distinct. The probability was maybe a factor of 11 higher than during normal, dry conditions. All reports and directives made me reach the conclusion that travel at this time was not recommended and extremely dangerous.
I didn’t know what to do. I had to make a decision.
No exclamation needed.
I started to sail South with Sandy Brown. She came to life, with the turn of a key, shrouded under fluffy white snow.
The roads were white and crunchy. I was still bleary. I drove a few miles and fought the soporific waves that nearly took over. At the first chance I had, I stopped. Reclined the seat back. Turned off the car. Eyes slowly lost focus. Warm tones on my radio went cold. Nothing could penetrate the cloud of passivity that moved into place.
After about 14 minutes, I looked around. I was in a big parking lot. It was 7:30 am. It was a Supercenter. Supercenters are the best. They have nice bathrooms. Any kind of product you wanted to buy. Even food, quite cheaply priced. I went inside and a gray-haired youth told me the way to the proper plumbing facilities. After a short sit-down, I began to peruse the food selections.
Tea, pickles, finger beans and pretzels. That was about all that was lacking in Sandy Brown’s pantry. I got a few other things and wheeled my plastic cart to a cashier and checked out. I needed some tea.
I found my propane tank and made a fire, heated some water and made a travel mug full of tea. I had some Canadian Mist in a bottle. I inhaled deeply. I felt the mist swirl around inside me. The jitters from the eatery coffee subsided. The tea and the mist calmed me, opened up channels in me that had been blocked. I looked up to the sky, getting a face full of cold, icy precipitation. It felt like things were just beginning. So nervous was I. It was just driving. But it was the pot of gold at the end of the road, at Hot Springs, that made me scared. I wanted to close my eyes and dream, but I didn’t need to. I was ready. Sandy Brown was awake and ready to go.
The tea was soothing, sweet and milky. It was time to move on. Leave the fruited plain. Head up into the hills. I had gone over the river and through the woods. I had leave my misgivings alone and just go. Just drive. South into to wind. The wind still controlled my mind, at times like these. The plentiful breezes told me nothing.
I wanted to hang on. Nothing was certain to me, except doubt and uncertainty. I winced at the embarrassing things I did in the past. Pensive and reflective was the mood for the morning. I sipped more tea. I couldn’t go just yet. I would need at least 15 minutes after drinking the tea to use the facilities 2 or 3 more times. Things didn’t feel quite right yet. I didn’t want to force things. Things would just happen.
I walked back into the Supercenter. Glass and metal doors opened as I approached.
“Good morning!” a greeter said to me and pointed me to the facilities.
“Take a look at our specials!” I reached out and took a flyer.
“My welcomes indeed!”
“Have a nice day!”
“I’ll try. You too.”
“My welcomes as well. Bye.”
Finally. No exclamation needed.