by E. L. Skip Knox
|part 2 of 4|
He looked over at Driver, who was leaning into the wheel, looking ancient, like he was hanging on more than driving. John figured he was harmless enough. Crazy wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just annoying sometimes. He’d stick, for a while. The idea of standing out in the dark again made him edgy. He had to admit, the Roadmaster was a pretty sweet ride.
They stopped at Barstow. The clock in the dashboard said it was 3:00 a.m., but it felt later. The car glided in to a Water Station, the only one that seemed to be open in the little town. Two pumps glowed in the night, and a single bulb burned in the office.
They pulled in and a bell dinged, a bright, cheery sound. A kid sporting a Standard Water uniform wandered out and came around to the driver’s side.
The old man rolled the window down. “Fill ’er up,” he said, “and use the pure stuff. This baby only uses distilled.”
“Sure bud,” the kid said without interest. “Want me to check under the hood?”
“Nope, we’re fine. Just need the steam to get over the desert.”
The kid nodded. “Good idea to drive at night. Hot as hell out there, daytime.” And he ambled off to begin pumping pure water into the Roadmaster.
“Johnny boy, get me a Coke, will you? Get one for yourself, too.” He handed John two nickels.
John nodded. As he was getting out, Driver said, “Don’t wander off, eh? Just get the Cokes and come right back to the car.”
John shrugged. What was he going to do? Walk to Arizona?
There was no Coke machine visible out front. He went into the office but didn’t find one there either. He leaned out the door and called to the Water attendant, “Hey, where’s your machine?”
The kid waved from the pump. “Out back. Only outlet’s back there.”
John went around to the back of the building. The red Coke machine was there, humming in the darkness. He opened the top and cooled air hit his face as he peered in. He dropped in a nickel and slid a bottle out, then got the other. He dropped the lid back down and opened both drinks, then took a long pull on one.
The station was at the edge of town and the back looked straight out into the Mojave Desert. The moon was down, Venus had followed the sun, and stars covered the sky. Jupiter hung in the south, or maybe that was Saturn. He had never been any good at Astrology.
He took another drink and then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something moving. His first thought was that it was ground fog, but that didn’t make any sense. It was something light-colored, sort of gliding, moving around at ground level.
He’d read about swamp gas and this was maybe like that, but Barstow was a long way from any swamp. There was something about those swimming swirls of light that was definitely wrong. Didn’t belong here at all and had no business moving like that. It was like a swarm of incandescent rats.
Get in the car.
Did he hear that or did he just think it? Either way, he had no argument with the notion. He turned and walked quickly back around the building. The old man was standing in front of the Buick, staring hard. John couldn’t tell if he was looking at him or past him.
“Here’s your Coke,” he called as he approached.
“Get in the car,” Driver said.
It was weird, hearing the old man speak the very words John had just heard in his head. He shrugged and got in. Only after he had closed the door did Driver come around his side and get in as well. He pulled out of the station and hit the accelerator pretty hard.
The Buick jumped forward, climbing the little rise that led out of Barstow. John glanced in the side view mirror. He could see the town’s glow, like an island in a wide, dark ocean.
“You see anything back there at the Coke machine, Johnny?” Driver asked.
John hesitated. Go, go, go, was all he could think. “Yeah,” he said finally, “desert and stars.”
Driver glanced over sharply. He considered, then said, “Sure. Plenty of both out here.”
John drank his Coke, thinking about those lights but not wanting to talk about them. He had the uneasy feeling that if he asked Driver, the old man would tell him, and maybe it was something he’d rather not hear.
So he stared out the window, pretending to look at something. The instrument panel gave a reflection in the window and he checked out the sorcerer from time to time, but the old guy appeared to be ignoring him.
The headlights threw cones of yellowish light down the highway, which made the black night even blacker: black asphalt laid down on lightless desert under a sky of pitch. The center line could have been the dividing line of the universe.
The view out the side was no better. Focusing past the reflection, he could see the silhouette of distant mountains, black shapes against black sky. Even the stars seemed to be swallowed up, and the car felt motionless. He concentrated on staring.
That was no good either. He kept expecting to see something, anything, pass by — a cactus, a telephone pole, anything — but the panorama might just as well have been a painting. It being desert, though, sometimes your eyes start playing tricks, if you stare too long. You start seeing shapes. Then you start seeing the shapes move. Then they’re moving along with you. And then they look at you.
“Can’t you find something on the damned radio?” He needed some sounds.
“No pleasing the young,” the sorcerer said, “how about you choose the station?”
John started to reach for the radio then stopped. “Hey, there ain’t no dial.”
“No pleasing the young and no fooling them either.”
“How do you turn it on?”
The old man gave him a look. “Reckoned you were sharp enough to figure that out on your own. This is a custom Roadmaster. I’ve made many modifications. Don’t disappoint me now, lad.”
John sat back, scowling. So okay, he thought, it’s like that. He’s daring me, to see what I’ve got. Fine. Anything’s better than this feeling that something cold was crawling up my back.
He let go of something.
He couldn’t explain what he did. For one thing, he’d never had to. On the contrary, he’d kept his powers hidden back home. It wasn’t the sort of thing you showed off. The good and proper folk back home were likely to lock you up or maybe run you out of town tarred and feathered. Or put you in a home.
Wizardry was allowed; hell, it ran most of the machines, but that was all regulated and run by the Guilds, like the Steam Guild. What sorcerers did was another thing altogether. Not Science, but the Arts.
So John had learned, over the past few years, that you played it cool, daddy-o, and then nobody hassled you. Life was hard enough without there should be complications. So he had played it cool, daddy-o, or tried to.
He had slipped up a few times. The first few was why his parents had abandoned him, giving him over to the care of the State. When he got older, the slip-ups were more serious, and he landed in Juvenile Hall, labeled a Danger To Society.
And now he was sitting on the slick vinyl upholstery of a Buick Roadmaster and a sorcerer was daring him to use magic. Sure. Middle of nowhere, middle of the night. It’d feel good to let go. To be able to use his power instead of constantly having to throttle it, so as not to have any more accidents. It was a challenge, and he liked challenges. He’d never used his Arts on a device before, but he surely did want some tunes.
So he let go and he gradually became aware of things outside himself. The landscape of magical arts was a kind of alternate reality: sounds, light, smells, everything was shifted. Some things that were hidden stood revealed, while some familiar things became shadowy.
He felt around with his power, touching and probing. He found the engine, the wheels, even the road and the desert whizzing by. He sensed life out in the desert, but in strange forms that seemed to turn and look as the Roadmaster drove past.
He glimpsed something larger, blue-white, with a long arm or maybe a tail. It made him think of those scurrying shapes back at the Water Station. It made him feel cold and he shuddered. He pulled back a bit, concentrating on the car, and found the radio.
His attention focused and his awareness narrowed to the device. It turned out to be easy; not a challenge at all. A pressure here, a twist there and the radio hissed briefly, then some jazz broke out, Stan Kenton’s band blowing some crazy be-bop.
John listened a minute but changed it and got Carl Perkins. That suited his mood better. Bet this old Buick’s never heard this before, he thought with a smile. He was still young enough that annoying his elders was its own satisfaction. He grinned over at the driver.
Something hit the car.
Copyright © 2012 by E. L. Skip Knox