We drove until we reached the other side of three towns, and then pulled up to a general store. I cut the engine and Jackson and I inspected each other.
“Well, you’ve looked better,” he said, lifting my chin.
“You’ve looked worse,” I said. That made him smile for a moment. “So who was that back there?”
“I don’t know,” he said, taking the opportunity to look back behind us, where the dust we’d kicked up was settling back on the wide lane. “You were kind of in a hurry when you talked to me the last time.”
“Last time? How many times have I come by?” Where did I get the time for all this, I wondered, and then paused. If I could jump at will then I kind of had all the time in the world. On this side, anyway.
“Oh, I don’t know how many,” he said, and he waved his arms around like he were swatting a lot of bugs, which I took to mean I shouldn’t have asked the question. “Maybe you like me a little.”
“Maybe I do. Did. Um, maybe I will.”
“Fine, fine, you keep up your mockery. You better be nice to me when I’m an old man.”
He caught me downcast at the mention of him as an elderly person.
“What? What do you know?” Jackson grabbed the fabric of my shirt at my arm. “Do I not? Do I not get old?”
I took in his face, trying to imagine how it would look with saggy jowls, wrinkles, white hair, a face he would never grow into because he only lived a few years past my mother’s birth. I wanted to tell him but I also feared it because if there was such a thing as fate knowing wasn’t going to help him.
“You’re going to be just fine,” I told him, giving him a nod. “You’re like an old man now.”
I was grateful he changed the subject, and started asking about the car and what other modifications I’d done to it. He had only followed my instructions for enhancing the engine, which was the request I’d made of him.
“Oh, a few other things I thought would come in handy, like the radio.” I asked him for the time, and he shook his head.
“Sorry, Jacqueline, it’s well past 2 now.” He pulled at the cord, sprung open the dial. The beautiful face caught my attention again. “It’s two forty-five,” he said with a sigh.
“Let’s try anyway.” I kicked on the starter and we drove to a parking lot behind a large white church with the tallest steeple in the small town. As long as the engine idled, we would have power for the transmitter. I dialed the frequency as before, and gave out a short call: “Of course you fell for me. I’m irresistible.”
Jackson shook his head. “What a fool girl you are.” I shot him a wide, fake grin.
The radio crackled, breaking the static.
“I’m here.” Lucas’ voice. I gasped without meaning to, and punched Jackson after he rolled his eyes at me.
“We just ducked two uh, former friends. I’m with the old man.”
I ignored the glowering stare from my passenger.
“Oh, good. Things here are the same…full of old friends, like for a big party.”
Big party? What did that mean?
“Well, we will join you then.”
“Be sure you bring the favors.”
I asked Jackson if we had party favors. He nodded.
“We’ve got them. We’re ready for a blast!”
“I’m sure they are, too,” Lucas said, and I couldn’t grasp any connotation from him.
“Well, I have to go,” he said. I heard a tinge of nervousness, or so I thought. “Good to talk to you.”
“You too.” The line returned to static. “Where are these ‘party favors,’ exactly?”
“He means this car,” said Jackson, and he patted it, as if he could have meant some other vehicle.
I tried to imagine what else I’d done to the car’s design that it was so necessary to Lucas, but I didn’t get an opportunity to discuss this with Jackson.
Coming out of the store, a man dropped a bag of groceries when he saw us and our blown-out windshield. He pointed right at us, shouting.
I threw the shifter into reverse, which pushed back against me. We could hear the gears grinding from under the hood.
“More clutch,” said Jackson, who had taken to pressing against the dash. “More clutch!”
“I know!” I slammed my foot on the left pedal, and the stick grabbed into gear. We flew backwards until I had clearance to get out of the small parking lot.
The shop owner popped out of the front door, brandishing a shotgun. “Enemies of the prophet are an abomination!”
“Go, go go,” said Jackson. I shifted direct into second gear and hit the gas, and we kicked dirt into the men’s faces. The owner took a shot at us, blinded from the dust, and missed.
“People sure do like to shoot at you,” he said.
“I like to think it’s affection.” My heart hammered inside me.
“Pull over here for a second,” he said.
“What? Why? We have to get out of here!”
“Pull over,” he repeated, and this time I did as he asked. He hopped over the passenger door and clambered up a telephone pole like a monkey. A pop of electricity, and the dark wire hung limply in the air. In a manner of seconds, Jackson was back in the car.
“Now drive fast.” I obliged.
“What was that about?”
“They have to know we’re headed back to Dr. Traver’s town, so I figured they’d find a phone and call to warn him.”
“Well, thank all that’s holy you approve,” he said, closing up his pocket knife and tucking it into a pocket.
“Let’s not talk about holy, okay? I’m a little full of people touting the prophet.”
“Anyone claiming to be a prophet isn’t,” said Jackson. “He’s twisted it all.”
We drove in silence, concentrating on any sudden attacks from Dr. Traver’s followers. It had been so good to hear Lucas’ voice. I’d run away and abandoned him and the rest of the underground; but he was decent to me in spite of my behavior. As unreal as all of this was, I needed to be a better person to everyone around me.
A red light flickered on near my left hand, the gas gauge. “We need more fuel,” I said. Behind us the sun crept toward a ridge; minute by minute the day was fading, so I clicked on the headlamps.
“There’s a little in a can in the trunk,” said Jackson. He seemed ready to fall asleep. I pulled the car off the road, onto a bolt of grass, and fumbled for the trunk lock. I wrestled the straps open and fumbled in the dark for a metal can.
I jumped when Jackson started talking to me; he’d come out of the car and I hadn’t noticed.
“Settle down, girl. Good thing you don’t have a gun in your hand.”
“Are you going to fill up the tank?”
“I just wanted to talk,” he said.
“Tell me about your mother.”
“What’s to tell?” Now I struggled with the gas cap, but Jackson twisted it in a quick yank, and took the can from me. I winced, smelling it.
“Come on, talk to me. What is she like?”
“She’s–she’s kind, very kind. She’s smart, and observant, and sometimes she gets sad.”
I could tell he was scowling, even in the dark. “Kind? Sad? Does she keep a good house, child? Was she married when you were born? When were you born?”
“I told you what was important. She’s pretty, she got married and my parents are good together. We don’t have a lot of money–“
“I knew it,” he said in a grumble. He capped the tank, then tossed the empty gas can into the trunk, where it clanked against something else.
“What did you know?” I plopped back in the driver’s seat.
“I knew no offspring of mine would ever amount to anything.” He sat down next to me, his palms facing the sky.
“My mother takes care the best she can, and she is a terrific person. And I miss her, and you should be grateful you get as much time with her as you will.”
“And how much time is that?”
“Is it ever enough,” I asked.
“I suppose not,” he said, opting to turn silent again. I turned the engine over and the machine sputtered, then caught.
“You just be nice to her, every day,” I said, “when you think you’re going to say something awful like that, just hug her, or something.”
“You sure have a lot of opinions,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I take after you,” I said.