Slide to Unlock: Part 6
Recap: John makes it to a diner, but his captors follow him there. He barely escapes, but the other patrons are not so lucky.
It had been getting into early fall. I had expected the birds to slowly disappear, but they continued their aimless flights overhead during our runs; the flock never seemed to thin or thicken. Texas felt like a limbo. It was off putting knowing the seasons were changing but seeing neither a hide nor hair of it.
Like the weather, Officer School was highly regimented. My life was broken down into hours meant for grueling physical activity, hands-on education, or sleeping. The latter seemed to dwindle as Officer School wore on. It’s not that I developed insomnia or that Officer School was slowly breaking me down. Rather it had a very positive effect—I felt all those bits missing in college that I thought a career could fill in was being filled by this school, by this training. I excelled at everything and I couldn’t fall asleep because I was always giddy for tomorrow.
One night, Rex, a boy from Tennessee with a sharp enough mind to rule a small country, tapped my shoulder. I stirred from a quasi slumber to see his face close to mine, haloed by the pale light of his cell phone, and I caught sight of the time on the device. It was 3:00am. “We have to get up in two hours,” I grumped but suddenly a thrill was rushing through me.
What could we be doing at 0300? Is this some secret drill and we’re joining a task force like the GI Joes?
Judging by the excited grin on Rex’s face, I thought that was precisely what was happening. So, without waiting for him to answer, I began pulling on my boots. I followed him wordlessly out of the barracks to the grassy quad that all the barracks were arranged around. I started walking towards HQ, but Rex grabbed my upper arm and began guiding me away.
We were heading towards where the trucks were parked—the ones that we used in drill and the teachers would ride in to chase us while we ran.
When Rex decided we were far enough into the car park, he slid down the side of a green Humvee and nodded for me to sit next to him. I did and he handed me a joint. I gave him a look askance and he shrugged.
“We’re shipping out in two weeks, thought I’d try to sneak some quality time in.”
Suddenly it dawned on me that we had been here ten weeks already. I felt my eyes widen and my fingers tremble, the paper of the joint loosening under my juddering touch. Rex patted my shoulder and then offered me a light. I took his offer, pulling hard on the joint the minute I fitted it between my lips.
“Holy shit,” I said finally, coughing a little on the exhale and still seeing stars from being hit so squarely with a reality check. Rex only laughed beside me. His laugh was deep and rich, owing much to his bulk. Rex was a little taller than me by two inches; even if my six foot one inch frame was no pygmy, Rex had made me feel like one whenever we had stood shoulder to shoulder. Right then, even sitting, he was still taller than me and I felt his shadow fall across me coldly.
I didn’t even know if we were going to be in the same unit. I knew I had to get some training done for mechanics at a base in Afghanistan and, more than likely, Rex was heading closer to the fighting front. He was going to work with the drone program. I planned to be with the fighter planes and transports.
It dawned on me I might not see him again.
“Holy shit,” I repeated and Rex handed me back the joint.
“We’re going to war, baby,” he whooped, the night swallowing up his words and the trucks serving as silent spectators. There was no breeze that cut the air like an omen. The moon remained brilliant with no cloud to mar its face. It was a beautiful November night that night in Texas.
I looked at the joint in my hand and realized, I might die. I also realized I wasn’t scared, which made the next two weeks that much worse.
I have never been a boy scout. And if anybody claims that I did undercover so I should be super adaptable then I will shove some super adaptable up their—ahem—posterior. Because no amount of pretending to be someone I’m not in a city could have prepared me for this: a cat and mouse game in the woods in the mountains in a dead man’s uniform. In fact, only walking all of Dante’s circles of Hell can possibly serve as an equivalent.
Angry ranting aside, the game has seemed to have quieted down. I had a few pursuant, but after hiding in a tree for longer than my limbs should have survived, they lost track of me. It gets me nervous because if they can make a man into a machine, how can they not find someone in the woods? Just put on some heat sensing goggles and you’d have me in a hot minute.
Nevertheless, I am not going to look my gift horse in the mouth, so with the few free days I salvaged, I begin heading northeast. If I can get to a big city, I can probably lose them. No amount of heat sensing can find you in a city.
After a lot of walking, I come to a huge interstate. Or what I assume is an interstate considering it has a grassy median, which means interstate, right? It’s a welcome change from all the trees and plant life I had been battling over the past few days. It’s not a welcome change since it seems just as endless as the path I had been walking before.
But then I see the sign—dark with white lettering and nearly covered entirely by the bright blooms planted around it: Blacksburg. It fills my chest with something light and warm; the dormant buzzing acts up a little in reciprocation. Quickly I quiet it; no use glowing now, even if it had turned out useful on the darker nights in the wilderness. Blacksburg may not be a big city, but it’s one step closer to getting to one.
A sign pointing to North Main Street guides my way. A few overly nosy motorists try to offer me a ride. I do my best impression of an angry drunk so that they leave me alone. There’s no telling whose driving the cars, whether it’s friend or foe, so I’ll take my chances walking even if I lost sensation in my feet a couple of miles ago.
I pass a lot of churches. I pass a lot of green. I pass a lot of parked cars that are screaming to be stolen, but I tell myself not to. No need to be conspicuous when I can walk a gazillion miles to the town center to pick up food and a map. However, when the Sun starts to set and there’s no town in sight I groan and throw myself unceremoniously on the ground.
Hiccups shake my chest and there’s an intense pain behind my eyes. I’m also starving, which is tying my stomach into knots and making me want to vomit. Everything just feels like Hell, so I lay there, in the drainage ditch, trying to count backwards from one hundred, by twos, in order to distract myself.
However, when a car blares its horn at me, it serves as a much better distraction.
A bright-haired blonde with dewy blue eyes steps out of a mud-splattered Chevrolet Capris. I can hear her muttering to herself—something about hoping whoever it is, is not dead. I want to tell her I’d take their place if she’s so worried; I’m totally up for dying right now. However, I keep mum, my face pushed into the mud and every bit of me pulsing with a pain that renders me immobile.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” the woman chants as she gets closer, dancing in the shoulder in bright red converse. She had seen the man walking along the road and thought it odd—it’s not exactly the sort of place you walk. Then, when he just fell down, the maternal switch in her flipped on. She sped up the last mile and hopped out of her car to go help the fallen man. Yet, upon being next to the motionless human, she’s a bit nervous: he might be dead and do you still call 911 if they’re dead? Will she get blamed if he’s dead?
She edges closer, a toe on the grass and the other left poised on the asphalt for her to spring away. Then she brings her back leg closer to the other one, firms her resolve, and begins to lean over and closer. That’s when the unconscious man moves just enough to lift his head and give her a lopsided grin.
“Nice shoes,” I say and she kicks out, hitting me in the gut, and then resumes her mantra of:
“oh my god, oh my god…” but this time with some ‘sorry’s mixed in there.