Friday, May 28, 2010

Chapter 7

The Triple-F

Early Wednesday morning, they went to have breakfast at a local diner called Friq’s Food Farm. The place was empty except for a middle-aged Yapul man who sat at the front bar reading a newspaper. He had the reddish skin, thick black hair, and short stature that were the hallmarks of the race that had originated in the volcanic Meriatos Islands. Above his clothes he wore a crisp and clean white apron. When he saw Mike and Callie, he put aside the paper and walked around to the business side of the bar.
“Welcome to the Triple-F! I’m Jahu Friq at your service, and you two are my first customers of the day!” he said with a smile.
He took out two faded menus from a shelf under the bar and placed them in front of the Longstreets.
“Whoa! What happened to your face, honey?” he asked Callie.
There was no malice in his question, only curiosity; but before Callie could answer, he clapped his hand to his forehead.
“Damn, that was rude!” he said, “That must’ve sounded awful. I meant about the cut on your face.”
“That’s okay,” Callie said, “It was just---“
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me, and I should know better than to pry.” he said, “So, what would you two like to order?”
He took out a memo pad from his apron pocket and a stubby pencil from behind his ear.
“I’ll have the bacon and eggs.” Mike said, glancing at the menu.
“Pancakes for me.” said Callie.
“And to drink?” Friq asked.
“Jandra, for both of us.” said Mike.
“Anything else?”
“Is it possible to order some burgers this early?” Callie asked.
“You kids that hungry?” Friq asked.
Mike raised a questioning eyebrow at her as well.
“For the trip.” she said, “It’ll be lunchtime by the time we’re on the other side of the Rough Country.”
“Oh, right.” Mike said, “I see your point.”
“You kids crossing the ‘Country’?” Friq asked.
Mike and Callie nodded.
“Most people just go around. That’s a lot of wide empty nothing to have to cross.”
“We know.” said Callie.
“Well I don’t usually do this, but I’ll cook you up some burgers after I get your breakfasts done. My kitchen staff is late as usual, and my regular clientele won’t begin to show up for another ten minutes or so. Your order will be ready before then. Find yourselves a table.”
“The bar will do fine.” said Callie.
“I assume you’ll want some sodas with those burgers.”
“Sure.” Mike said, “Why not?”
“Okay then, all that remains is to work out the vulgar matter of payment.” Friq said, as he sidled over to a big old-fashioned cash register. He keyed in the items on his pad, and the register rang up the total.
“That’s a lot less than I thought it would be.” Mike said, taking out his father’s wallet.
“At these prices, I’m practically giving food away.” Friq said with a friendly wink, “Breakfast will be ready in a jiffy.”

When Friq returned from the kitchen, it was with Callie’s pancakes. He went back to fetch two glasses of Jandra, a common fruit juice, then Mike’s bacon and eggs.
“Please enjoy your food while I go whup up those burgers.” he said, and once again departed their presence.
Mike found the bacon to be superb and gone too soon. The eggs, not so much; he plowed through them just to finish them off. Callie, on the other hand, ate her pancakes with exaggerated delight.
“Mmmmm! You shoulda ordered the pancakes, Mike.” she said, “They’re delish!”
“Now she tells me.” Mike said. He washed down the eggs with the last of his Jandra.
He looked over at Callie. “Almost done?” he asked.
“I’m gonna enjoy these pancakes at my own pace, dammit. Why don’t you go do something useful with yourself and stop bugging me?”
“Well, I could go gas up the wagon---“
“Yes, yes, go gas up the wagon,” Callie said, waving him away, “I’ll be finished by the time you get back.”
“Not the way you eat.” Mike snickered.
He turned, got up, and walked out of the diner. As he did so, Friq called out to Callie from the kitchen.
“Where’d your brother go?”
“He’s gonna go gas up the wagon.” she said.
“I hope old Gus don’t scare him.” Friq said, “He’s a harmless old gent, been pumping gas since there’s been gas to pump; but he can get eccentric at times.”
“Hey, what can you tell me about the Rough Country?” Callie asked.

Mike drove down to Kraddock’s only gas station, which was called GAS GUS’S (“Last gas for miles” a rusted sign on the office window read). It had only two antique-looking pumps, but the place was full service. The station’s owner, an antique himself, pumped Mike’s gas, washed and squeegeed his windows, and checked his oil. He was efficient, if slow.
While Mike paid him, Gas Gus asked, “Ain’t you a liddle young to be driving?”
“I look young for my age.” Mike replied; his stock answer to such questions.
Gas Gus shrugged. He took out a grubby coin purse made of worn down leather, and counted out Mike’s change. Mike stuck his hand out the window to receive it.
“So where you headed, younger?” Gas Gus asked; out of ingrained habit than any actual curiosity.
“Metromax City.” Mike replied.
“You going ‘round the ‘Country’?”
“No. Through.”
Gas Gus shook his old head.
“I would suggest you rethink about that.” he said.
“Well, yes, I know it’s long, and there are wild animals, but---“
“They’s more dangerous things in the Rough Country than wile animals.” Gas Gus said, “It’s a curse place. I know because I was here when it become what it became, and I’ll never forget seeing that arful light descenting over Oboul County; or the arful screaming. Everything there was dead an dust after then.”
“Uhhh, okay.” Mike said, wondering how to extricate himself from this conversation without seeming rude.
Accustomed to being patronized, Gas Gus took this as a prelude to a snide remark.
“But you youngers know everything, don’tcha?!” Gas Gus said with a huff, “So you just go an get youself gone!”
He turned and shuffled back to his plastic chair.
What a weirdo, Mike thought. He started the wagon and drove out of Gas Gus’s little corner of senility.

When Mike got back to the Triple-F, the place was alive with the first of Friq’s regular customers.
Callie was ready to go.
They said their goodbyes, exited the Triple-F, then packed themselves and their lunches into the wagon.
They departed Kraddock, and headed off towards the Rough Country.
Friq watched them leave from a window across from the kitchen, where he and his just-arrived staff were busy making breakfasts. He uttered a snippet of an old Yapul prayer poem:
Vari nani valla na, fir ando anan da san dos va.”
Which in Thrist, the language of Marriak, roughly translates into:
“Gods be with them, on the dark roads they must travel.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chapter 6

Three Days

Mike was having another nightmare.
A giant snake with the head of a woman chased after Callie. There was a tattoo on the woman’s forehead, of a spider; and the spider seemed to wiggle as if alive.
Mike himself was trapped in a cage, helpless to do anything but watch as the snake woman caught Callie and began to devour her, feet first. As Callie’s head disappeared screaming into its maw, the snake woman looked over at Mike, and spoke the following in mocking tones:
 “Poor Eternus! Left for dead!
In his heart, not in his head!
For the Man Aghast we wait.
Blood upon the Darkling gate!
This was followed by gales of derisive laughter, which ended abruptly when some movement caused her to glance over at something behind Mike, who suddenly realized he wasn’t alone in the cage. He turned around to find a dark and frightful creature staring back at him with red bestial eyes.
“Will you ever take that off?” it asked.
Mike touched his face with his hands, and felt its falseness. It was a child’s plastic mask, with an elastic string around his head to hold it in place. The elastic was worn down and would not hold for long.
Mike felt under the mask and touched a smooth formless softness that moved and changed under his fingertips. Fear overcame him, and he held the mask tight against his face.
“What am I underneath?!” he asked the beast.
“Guna shaal isanno a’dahj.” the beast replied.
“What? I don’t understand---“
“It’s not your place to understand, but to burn.”
The beast advanced on him. It extended it’s claws, which were molten with fire. Mike tried to back away, but there was no room to do so. The beast grabbed the sides of his head.
“Burn for me, Michael.” it said.
Mike screamed as fire engulfed his face, mask and all.

The dream changed.
Mike now found himself in his father’s house; the kitchen, in fact. The daylight that came in through the window looked noonish, perhaps late morning. The window also afforded a view of a dusty brown car, parked in front of the house.
There was a body on the kitchen floor; a butcher knife stuck in its back.
The body was that of a tall middle-aged man in a bland blue suit. Splayed out beside him was an open briefcase; its former contents spilled on top of and around the dead man.
Mike walked into the living room and looked for his dad, but found only the empty chair tossed aside in a corner. The TV was on, but showed only static. Strips of cut duct tape were scattered everywhere on the floor, along with pieces of sliced up rope.
Mike heard a noise and turned to see his father walk out of the bathroom. His hair was wet, and he had on a clean set of clothes.
His eyes were blacker than the darkest night.

Mike awoke with a gasp.
I don’t think I’ll tell Callie that one.
He had no watch, but guessed it was around three or four in the morning. As quietly as he could, he sat up and looked over at the back seats. Good, Callie was still asleep; he was afraid he had woken her up. He knew he talked in his sleep, sometimes loudly; not to mention the times he had woken up screaming.
That’s two nightmares since we left home, he thought to himself, that can’t bode well.
He looked out the driver’s side window and saw the MACATTO INSURANCE car pull out of the parking lot. Its bleary-eyed driver headed off in the direction they had come from.

The pattern of their next three days on the road matched that, more or less, of their first.
On Sunday, they feared they were about to be pulled over by a frain officer (not a good thing as Mike did not have a licence), but he was after someone else. Halfway through Monday, they ran out of stocked food (despite their half-assed attempts at rationing), and had to start buying it. The bruising on Callie’s face was starting to fade by now, but the gash on her cheek still looked nasty. By Tuesday night they had reached Kraddok, the last town before the Rough Country.
“Tomorrow morning, we start off across the Rough Country.” Mike said, as they stopped for the night, “We’ll be in Metromax City by noon.”
But he was wrong about that.   

Friday, May 14, 2010

Chapter 5


They drove all morning.
At noon they ate on the road. Callie had packed plenty of sandwiches; stored in a cooler to keep them fresh. When the juice ran out, they stopped at a store and bought sodas.
They drove all afternoon.
Around six, they stopped on a lonely dirt road, to have supper, and so Mike could get some rest. They got out and set a blanket under a canopy of trees. Mike lay down, rested his head on one of the pillows Callie had brought with them, and fell asleep right away. Callie decided to wait until Mike was awake to get the cooler out and eat something. She brought out one of her paperback books, leaned back against a tree, and started reading.
Twenty minutes passed, and Mike awoke with a scream.
“Mike? You okay?” Callie asked.
“Man alive!” Mike gasped, as he sat up and looked around.
“Bad dream?”
Mike nodded. “You know me.”
“Was it the falling off a tree one again?”
“No, it was something new.” Mike said, “Me, you, and some guy I don’t know, only in the dream I did, were walking through the empty ruins of a city.”
“Metromax City, by any chance?” Callie asked.
“Don’t know. Could be, I suppose. Anyway, we were walking through this empty city, on the tops of cars for some reason, and then these things started to flow out of this huge hole in the ground. They were black as coal and blubbery-looking, like wet seals. They had no eyes as far as I could tell, and they made awful grunting noises, like the kind pigs make when they eat. There were thousands and thousands of them! Pouring out of that hole, leaving behind oily streaks everywhere they passed.”
“They started to come after us.”
“Then? What did we do?”
“Not sure. Things got kind of surreal at this point. I think there was flying involved, or something. It’s all a blur after that.” Mike rubbed his face. “I think I’ve had enough rest for now. Let’s eat.”
They went to the wagon, retrieved food and drink, and returned to the blanket.
“Oh! I forgot to give you something.” Mike said, and slapped himself on the forehead.
He unbuttoned his shirt pocket, and brought out a ring.
“I took this off Dad.” he said, and handed it to Callie, “I thought you might want it. It’s the ring that cut your face.”
“It sure is.” Callie said, inspecting the ring.
She considered it an ugly thing, best thrown away, but did not want to seem ungrateful for the gesture. So she put it in her own shirt pocket.
“Thanks Mike.” she said.

By nightfall, they entered the town of Gough.
“We gotta find a place to stop for the night.” Callie said, “Nice hotel maybe?”
“Sorry, but no. We have to make our money last.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Callie said, “…cheapskate.”
“Come to think of it, we should also start rationing our food supplies.” Mike said, “We’ve been eating like there’s no tomorrow.”
“Alright already, but where do we stop for the night?”
“There.” said Mike.
He pointed to a grungy motel called (without any apparent irony) Rottsett’s Inn. Mike drove in and parked the wagon at this establishment’s parking lot, between a battered yellow van, and a white car with MACATTO INSURANCE stenciled on its sides in black paint.
They would see this car again…later.
“What a lousy excuse for a firetrap.” Callie said, referring to the motel, “But I guess it’s better than nothing.”
“We’re not staying in the motel.” Mike said, “We’re sleeping in the car.”
“Oh-h-h. Yes, I see.” Callie said.
“Anyone sees the wagon; they’ll think it’s just another motel customer.” Mike said, “At least until morning. Just don’t forget to lock your doors.”
Callie climbed over to the back seats and retrieved pillows and blankets from the back compartment of the wagon. She handed a set to Mike. They made their respective beds.
“G’night Mikey.”
“G’night Cal.”
Five minutes of silence passed.
Then, from the back seats: “Mike?”
“Uh huh?”
“What if Dad…”
“He can’t. He won’t. Don’t worry about it.” Mike said, “Even if he did, he could never find us. We’re too far away now, and he doesn’t know where we went. He’s out of our lives forever.”
“That’s good to know. Thanks Mike.”
“Sleep easy, sis.”
She did, and he followed soon after.
Thus ended their first day on the road.

Back in Noah’s Oak, Charles Longstreet lay, pretty much in the same position Mike had last seen him in. His stomach growled and cramped. The last time he had eaten was lunch, yesterday. Callie had brained him before he’d had a chance to eat supper. He also stunk to high heaven, having been forced to relieve himself, both ways, where he lay.
Despite the hunger and physical pain of being on his back for all this time, he had not moved or despaired.
He was waiting for something.
For someone.
It came with the sound of a click, and the dark living room was suddenly bathed in flickering light. Longstreet heard the sounds of a late night talk show.
Someone had turned on the television.
He turned his head in the direction of the tv (the bones in his stiff neck crackled like dry twigs all the way) and saw channels zip by, but there was no one there to change them, and the remote was sitting on the tray next to the sofa.
The channel surfing stopped at a station showing static. From behind the static, a pair of glowing eyes appeared…then the face that went with the eyes. It was a face known to him.
Hello again, Longstreet thought; he knew the owner of that face could read his mind.
“You remember, then?” the face asked. It spoke through the television’s speakers, just above the hiss of static.
I remember everything, now. They removed the ring.
“I have another task for you.”
What do you want this time?
“Come morning, someone will find you and free you. You will kill him, take his car, what money he has on him, and make whatever preparations are necessary before you leave. I would suggest a bath. Eat a hearty breakfast as well; you’ll need your strength. You may have to kill someone else along the way to change cars and replenish funds.”
Where am I going?
“After your children. I think you know who they’re going to go look for.”
I do. Are they headed in the right direction?
“Being who and what they are---of course.”
What do I do when I catch up with them?
“Listen close…”

Friday, May 7, 2010

Chapter 4

The Plan

Callie woke up early; it was now Saturday.
“Mike, get up!” she said.
She leaned over the back of the front seats and prodded him.
Mike wasn’t ready to get up just yet. Callie had to twang his earlobe and slap his head around for a few seconds.
“Alright! Alright! I’m getting up!” he said.
“Go check on Dad!”
“Why? What happened?”
“Just…in case.”
Mike had somehow ended up on his stomach, his least favorite sleep position, and now his right arm was crushed under his body with a cramp to end all cramps, and his back ached like an old man’s, after a fall.
“Gimme a minute.” he said.
He extricated his right arm, and then began the arduous task of turning himself around.
“Is this going to take long?” Callie asked.
“Me kill you now if not shut up.” Mike answered.
He sat up and opened the passenger door, which was closer to the kitchen entrance. He scooted out of the wagon and tossed his pillow behind him to the backseats as he did so. Once out, he yawned and stretched, then walked into the house. He flicked the kitchen lights on, as it was still dark, and looked over to the living room, where his father had been placed.
His father was not there.
Mike’s breath staggered to a stop.
Hoping his bleary eyes were only being deceived by the dark, he walked into the living room, switched on the lights, and blinked as they flickered on.
There he was.
A sigh of relief escaped Mike’s lips when he saw that his dad had only fallen backwards, but was still well bound. During the night he must have somehow tipped himself over. Now he lay there next to the sofa like an upside-down turtle; asleep, apparently, in that awkward position.
Just for scaring me, Mike thought, I’m going to leave you like that.
Charles Longstreet opened his eyes.
Mike almost screamed; his father’s eyes had gone jet black.
At least they had seemed so, for a moment there. A second look showed normal eye coloring; the whites of the eyes still…white.
Just a trick of the light, that’s all, Mike thought, Had to be.
He went back to the garage. Callie waited for him there. She had a change of clothes ready, as well as a plastic baggie of toiletries.
“So?” she asked.
“It’s okay, he’s still there.”
“What kept you?”
“Nothing. Just…nothing.”
“Well then. Let’s wash up so we can get the hell out of here. I’ll go first.”
She walked past him, into the house.
“Steer clear of Dad, Cal.” Mike called after her.
“I intend to.” she called back.

They did not dally. 
Ten minutes later they were both back in the wagon, and good to go.
Mike backed the wagon out of the garage and onto the empty street. He turned them in the direction of the shortest route out of town.
“We’re really doing it this time.” Callie said, with a nervous flutter in her voice, “I can’t believe we’re really doing it this time!”

Soon, their hometown of Noah’s Oak was behind them. 
Half an hour later, they were out of Fasenbuk County altogether. A few hours after that, as they neared the state line between New Heedol and Minnago, they stopped for gas in a town named Crayton; then drove over to a nearby picnic area for breakfast.
They located a decent table under a shady tree and brought to it their provisions. They had the whole park to themselves, and the breeze was delicious.
Callie had packed pancakes in foil. She also brought paper plates and cups, utensils, napkins, and juice.
They set their table, sat down, and had their breakfast. They ate in silence; in enjoyment of the moment, the scenery, and their freedom. Only when they were about finished, were they ready to get down to business.
“I think it’s time we talk about where it is we want to go from here.” Callie said, “Putting miles between us and Dad is good for a start---but sooner or later we’re gonna have to figure out what to do with ourselves when that’s no longer the pressing issue.”
Mike thought it over as he washed down the last of his pancakes with a swallow of juice.
“I think our basic problem,” he said, “Is that we don’t have any relatives to turn to…that we know about, anyway. Our only known relative is Dad, and he’s the problem, not the---“
“Mike…” Callie interrupted, “What about Mom?”
“What about her?”
“We can try to find her!” Callie said, already enchanted with her idea.
“Find her where? We don’t know where she is. She could be dead by now, for all we know.”
“Dad’s alive. Why not her?”
“If she’s alive, why didn’t she ever come looking for us?”
“We don’t know she didn’t try.”
“What if she doesn’t want us?”
“What if she does?”
“I’m not talking you out of this, am I?”
“Okay, you got my vote.” Mike said, throwing his hands up in mock defeat, “Beats wandering around aimlessly, I suppose. So where do we even begin to look for her?”
“Let me think.” Callie said, and gnawed at her thumbnail, “What about that city you always tell me we used to live in, when we were little; back before Dad took us from Mom. Maybe she’s still there.”
“But where? I only remember a city; I don’t know which city it is.”
“Well…” more nail biting, “You say you remember that the trip from there to Noah’s Oak took several days, right?”
“Yeah, but my memories could be wrong. I was just a little kid, and that was so long ago.”
“True, but there’s no reason we can’t take a blind stab at it.” Callie said, and spat out a speck of thumbnail, “Go over to the gas station and buy us a road map.”
“New Heedol too.” Callie said, “Might as well cover our bases.”

The gas station was close enough for Mike to walk over to it. There was a mini-mart there, and there Mike picked up the maps at the counter. The clerk had bright yellow skin and golden eyes. Mike tried not to stare; Sardossians were rare in this part of the country, and he had never seen one before, outside of television. He paid for the maps and rejoined Callie at the park.

Callie had already cleaned up the picnic table, and thrown the refuse into a nearby trashcan. She was storing their supplies back into the wagon, when he arrived.
“You got ‘em?” she asked.
“Minnago and New Heedol,” he replied, “Just like you asked.”
“Let’s try New Heedol first.”
She took the New Heedol map, unfolded it, and spread it out on the table. A rising wind tried to snatch it away, but they weighed it down with stones off the ground.
Callie studied the map, “The closest thing to the kind of city we’re looking for in New Heedol is the capitol, Elaan. Not quite the bustling metropolis. Let’s give Minnago a look.”
They unfolded the Minnago map, placed it on top of New Heedol, and reset the stones.
“There’s a lot of minor cities here,” said Callie, “But I don’t see---“
“Right here, Metromax City.” said Mike. He pointed it out to her.
“Ah! Looks just like what we’re looking for,” she said, “And it’s about four or five days away; a possible match with your memories, Mike.”
“There could be a problem. See all this yellow expanse several towns before Metromax? According to this,” Mike said, referring to a block of text boxed away on the lower left of the map, “This area is known locally as ‘The Rough Country’. It is a dead region that takes about four hours to cross. If you want to go around it, it’ll take more than a day longer to get to Metromax.”
“It’s a dangerous area. Gallanashes, wullarks, and cwarnas have run of the place. Nobody lives there. There are no rest stops or gas stations. Just one long stretch of paved road. Used to be a whole county, but went to seed, or went bad, or somesuch.”
“We’ll deal with that when we have to.” Callie said.
“Okay then,” Mike said, “We have a plan. Metromax City it is.”
The moment he said this, a strong gust wrenched the two maps from their stone weights and sent them scurrying through the park, like unruly sprites. Mike and Callie ran after them, but only managed to catch Minnago; New Heedol fluttered away like an unbound kite, over a hill and out of sight.