Are we there yet?
There would be no answer. There was no there to get to. The car would drive on forever, and his parents in the front seat would never answer, for they were both dead.
Father said they were driving to Tomorrow, but Tomorrow had come and gone.
Outside, the hypnotic monochrome highway ripped along, lit by the shooting stars of passing headlights and the golden harvest moon that rolled effortlessly alongside them, watching but offering no sage advice, let alone help. Ramsey was frightened of the other cars, still more by the moon, but he would much rather watch it than look at the toy in his hands for fear of seeing the tiny tin boy inside it looking back at him, or at his mother, or at the ragged absence of his father’s head.
This was the third night of the drive, and Ramsey’s first night alone in the touring car. They traveled west on the Great Interstate, the mighty 22, four broad lanes of new-minted black corduroy tarmac as straight as a knife of starless night bisecting the eternal plain.
The radio hissed as the last whisper of the Chicago jazz station was swallowed up by waves of static. The clever car searched the airwaves for the nearest island of manmade sound, settled on a quavering cowboy crooner in Wichita who howled at the moon.
And the car rolled on, past fields and forests and sleeping cities and towns. The steering wheel rocked back and forth, making tiny corrections to stay within its lane. Tiny light sensors built into the undercarriage tracked the dotted white lines, steering and maintaining the speed long after the driver had gone as cold as the wind blowing in through the open window. Cruise control, Father called it; only the least amazing of the innovations that went into this, the prototype of the Cobb Crusader, the touring car of Tomorrow.
Ramsey closed his eyes and tried to comfort himself by humming the tune Father taught him, and though it sounded strange even to his ears, the habit of it soothed his nerves so long as he kept his eyes clenched tight. Father loved music almost as much as he loved cars, but the music he loved most set Mother’s teeth on edge, and led to frequent arguments over what music was.
Father said music, as Cage and Schoenberg and other modernists created or destroyed it, was pure mathematics, the sound of truth, and he found the atonal discordance of the chromatic scale totally life-affirming. Ramsey sat for an hour a day with Mother at the piano, pounding out Bach and Beethoven like newspaper copy, but the alien coldness of the modernists touched him in a purer way than other music, though it was colored by his boundless adoration for Father. The composition he hummed now was rigorously rhythmic, though so randomly tuneless that it might have been the sound of wind chimes.
When he felt better, Ramsey looked out the passenger side window and tried to figure where they were. If they were leaving Illinois, they were not quite halfway there. The car would follow the highway to their final destination, which was Los Angeles, and would not stop until it got there. The papers and the newsreel cameras would be waiting, all fired up to introduce Father’s car, and the revolutionary chemical formula that propelled it, to the world.
• • •
When the car was finished, Father and his investors hired a squad of armed ex-Marines to guard it until arrangements could be made for its maiden voyage. Pinkerton goons sabotaged the public unveiling at the garage in Boston, deflecting reporters with a rumor that the event was a hoax, and trying to pull him over in fake police uniforms. But Father outwitted them, sending a dressed-up Studebaker as a decoy from the declared location, which the goons ran off the road on Boylston Street.
Father’s agent wired the west coast press, promising an extraordinary event. A newsreel crew followed the car out of Boston and down to New York City, crossing the George Washington Bridge with their whirring cameras trained on the waving family in the touring car of Tomorrow, until they had to turn off to get gas. Another crew would catch them in Pittsburgh, and another in Chicago, and so on, capturing each leg of the brave family’s nonstop transcontinental trip.
To be sure, Father would pull over at farmers’ stands and roadside eateries with a drive-thru window when the icebox’s store of sandwiches and fruit got to be too much, and at service stations when Mother couldn’t be persuaded to avail herself of the ingenious sanitation system built into the seats; but the engine would never shut off. Father never got out from behind the wheel, except for a momentary stretch while Mother made her toilette.
Over the first leg of the trip, Ramsey never saw Father sleep a wink or take a bite of food, though his nervous energy mounted with each state they crossed. Mother had trained to operate the car and insisted that he let her take a shift, but he kept putting her off. Like the car, he seemed to need no rest and only a swallow of water to travel any distance. He spoke less and less with Mother, hardly acknowledged his son, only the road and his maps and the buzzing voices on the wireless radio.
Ramsey knew Father was always in touch with one of his “uncles,” the odd squad of engineers, chemists and business-types who helped build the car. The talk was jaunty at first, but soon grew shrill and snappy, the words longer, except for the four-letter variety. Mother urged him to pull over and let her drive, to get some rest before he wrecked them. “I’ll sleep when the car’s made history, dear, and not before.”
And that was the problem. From what little he could gather, the uncles had made no headway with the press, and even less with major investors. They were totally blacked out. The papers, the radio and newsreel bureaus wouldn’t relay a word about the trip, which, by now, was supposed to be “a coast-to-coast sensation!” But nobody knew about them. The cars and trucks they passed on the highway showed no recognition of their importance, aside from a few odd glances at the Crusader’s radically streamlined body.
Those whom Father hoped would mass-produce the Crusader were even more tight-lipped. Someone had leaked the Cobb Automobile Co. prospectus and a contact list, and everyone who might have helped them to build the Car of Tomorrow had been paid off or threatened, and then begged off.
In Chicago, it had come to a boil. As they approached the gray spires of the city, a truck closed in behind them, and Father slowed down to let what he thought was the Movietone crew catch up and begin filming. Ramsey had been napping, and woke to Mother shaking him and wiping peanut butter off his face with a spit-slick thumb. She straightened and yanked on his tie until black spots blotted out his sight.
The truck came up alongside and a camera was pointed at them, but the man in the front passenger seat pointed at the breakdown lane and waved a sign with a string of numbers on it. Father cursed and fiddled with the dials on the wireless, then went white and silent as a tinny voice whispered in his ear.
“No, that’s impossible,” he said, but the voice rattled on. “God damn you,” he said, but on it went. Ramsey watched the truck getting closer, running neck-and-neck with them, almost close enough for the pointing man to reach in and grab the wheel.
Mother demanded to know what was happening, but Father ignored her and spun the dials again. “Charlie, what is this bullshit? Who are these goddamned people, and why are they talking like they own my car?”
He listened, jaw tensing as he chewed his lip. “But every damned innovation on this car was individually patented. The engine, the tires, the wireless telephone tap… All that fucking paperwork just doesn’t disappear. I’m—yes, I fucking well am asking you what really happened…”
Father shook his head so violently at whatever Uncle Charlie said that the headset slipped down around his ears. “Charlie, this isn’t about the law. This isn’t about the goddamned company! This isn’t even about the goddamned car! This is about perpetual motion! This is about a thousand miles and counting, non-stop, on a gallon of water! It’s about changing the world and building the future, and they’re trying to bury it! Don’t let them bury it, Charlie, for the love of God, don’t let them—”
Ramsey heard his father cry for the first time, and covered his eyes. The sobs turned into a raw-throated scream and the car swerved, throwing Ramsey across the enormous back seat. Crayons snapped under him and magazines spilled into the cavernous foot wells.
The truck filled up the driver’s side windows, and the pointing man climbed out onto the running board. He hung by the doorpost of the truck in the whipping wind with his other hand out to reach into Father’s open window.
Father swung the car away from the truck and rolled up his window. The touring car leapt forward, accelerating and swerving towards the center line to cut off the truck. The driver of the truck was no chicken, and strove to choke off the car’s escape.
The man on the running board hefted a crowbar. Ramsey saw it and let out a piercing, wordless scream, but Father closed the gap and feinted at the truck, pulling the car back at the last instant. The passenger lunged out and smashed Father’s window. The glass was crazed with blue cracks, but it held. Father’s hysterical laughter was worse than his tears. “See, what did I tell you, Madeline? How about that safety glass! And they want to bury it—”
Father floored the gas pedal and easily outpaced the truck, climbing through a convoy of semi trailers like they were going backwards, like the car would keep accelerating until they ran right off the edge of the earth and into the infinite. “Look at how the suspension handles, Maddy! Do you hear that, Charlie, you backstabbing son of a bitch? That’s the Car of Tomorrow doing ninety miles in fourth gear on a highway! Sounds like a fly snoring, doesn’t it, you Judas-goat bastard? Everyone in the world is going to want one of these!”
Mother tried to calm him down, but Father was beyond contact. He elbowed the safety glass out of the window and climbed up on the seat, sticking his head and shoulders out into the wind. He thumbed the cruise control lever on the steering column. The car barely slacked off before resuming its insane speed. They rode the exact center of the passing lane between four lanes of traffic, a mad symphony of horns in their wake as if their gas-guzzling rivals, at least, recognized what passed among them, and were frantic to destroy it.
Mother shrieked and slapped at Father’s back, but he was oblivious as he screamed into the wind, trying to sell his car.
“City of Chicago, I give you Cobb Automobile’s Prototype C… the Cobb Crusader! A bold new type of car for a bold new age! Folks, meet the last car you’ll ever have to buy, and say goodbye to the gas pump, because this little fucking wonder runs on water! No shit, Chicago!”
Mother tugged at Father’s sweat-grimed shirttails, but his frenzied hand batted her away.
“The revolutionary engine under the hood is a self-contained fuel cell that is recharged by the motion of the car! The longer you drive, the further you can go, in effortless, laser-guided style that makes accidents almost impossible! And get a load of these other features! Self-sealing, puncture-resistant, seventy-two-nacelle vulcanized rubber tires! You can’t hurt these little sonsofbitches! Interchangeable, dent-resistant aluminum body molding panels, so you can update and customize the color and style of your Crusader as the years go by! Wireless radio transceiver, so you’re never out of touch with the world at large! Cruise control and automatic navigation, so even a sleeping baby can keep the car on the road! Three-point safety belts, fold-down backseat bunk beds, a refrigerator, flush toilets… America, you’re going to love this car so goddamned much, you’ll want to be buried in it—”
The truck dropped away behind them with a whinnying squeal of brakes. Ramsey looked up from the chapel of his hands. Father leaned out even further into the wind. The deep, bellicose blast of a horn sounded from ahead of them, and steadily grew louder.
“And all parts on the Cobb Crusader come with a lifetime guaran—”
The oncoming truck grazed the dent-resistant aluminum body panels and took his father from the neck up, and made a bloody pennant of his left arm.
A scarlet curtain of blood fanned across Ramsey’s window. The truck slewed sideways in the road behind them, still bellowing its rage and disbelief as the car rolled on.
Mother howled as she pulled Father back into his seat, but then went giddily mute, fussing over his tie and refilling his coffee as if all was well. She eased back the cruise control lever, slowing the car to sixty. She shook in her safety harness as if she’d just been dragged from a frozen lake. She looked all around the car and out the window, everywhere but at Father, or her son.
He reached for her, but she gently pushed him back onto the seat. “Fasten your safety belt, young man. And stop that sobbing. You’re disturbing your father.”
Ramsey wasn’t aware he’d been crying, but he bit his lip and did as he was told. Beyond the headrest of the driver’s seat, there was no Father visible, but Father’s car sailed on down the highway, now bearing southwest out of Springfield, and a straight shot to Kansas City, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and points west.
“Keep it down, there’s a good boy. Mother’s got a headache, and she’s going to take a nap. Father’s very tired, too, but he’s waiting for Uncle Charlie to call back.”
All out of speech, she seemed to switch off, but then she added, her eyes seeking his for the first and last time since they set out from Boston. “I know all this looks bleak, but your father will win through, because he’s one of the just. He’s a good man, bringing the light of a new age across America, and we’re very lucky to be accompanying him. It’s a ride into history—into Tomorrow, rather…” She blinked and pressed her blue-white hands against her temples. “Mother has a headache,” she repeated. “Do you have a headache, Ramsey? Do you need something to help you sleep?”
He shook his head. She bent and rummaged in the first aid kit and came up with the bottle of pills she used to sleep on the road. They were very strong and they always made her snore. She shook some out in her hand and washed them down with a drink from a flask. She looked at Ramsey once, but he pretended to be dozing. He heard her fill her hand with pills and drink from the flask three more times. She turned up the radio on a ballroom broadcast from WBG in Chicago. “Sleep,” she said once, and Ramsey guessed she did, but this time, the pills did not make her snore at all.
• • •
The scenery rolled by outside, the new-minted sunlight painting the green and gold Iowa countryside in Medieval oils, like a page from the Book of Hours. His bloated bladder throbbed and his stomach growled and twisted like an angry snake inside him, but the icebox was set into the passenger side of the drive train, beside Mother’s knee. He used the foldout toilet under the seat, stowed his itchy wool army blanket and changed into a clean shirt and blazer from the suitcase in the trunk.
The Kansas cowboy crooner had long since fallen away, and now an Oklahoma minister harangued the car about the wages of sin. Dancing waves of static, not unlike one of the angular, chromatic musical experiments Father so dearly loved, lapped around the minister’s voice, and Ramsey imagined him and his whole congregation in a blizzard of red snow, church and sermon being devoured bit by bit, like the highest towers of Atlantis sinking beneath the waves.
He rolled down his window. The wind burned his face like the breath of an oven, but the spray of blood across the glass no longer obscured his view. They were still in the passing lane, and Ramsey could see only a handful of trucks and cars between him and the horizon in either direction.
Something must be done. Father would never just sit still in such a predicament. No matter how dim their prospects, he would take charge.
There was no one to help him. Father was indisputably dead. Mother, likewise. She leaned against her window with her face tucked into her shoulder against the faintly tinted glass. He could see only her neck, which was pale and waxen, and one hand curled in her lap.
He didn’t want to think she’d meant not to wake up. Father was her whole world, and Ramsey had never had any illusions about how she saw her son. He was Father’s creature, to be loved and nurtured as such, but without Father, she could not go on.
Ramsey felt cold grip his heart and lungs, and knew he should blame her, even hate her, for deserting him, but it made no sense. It wouldn’t stop this, it wouldn’t break this endless moment, stop this fever-dream from going on forever, so he put it down.
He had to stop the car. He could not depend on help. The wireless would not work, the headset was back in Chicago with Father’s head. Even if he could hail a fellow traveler, they would probably only get themselves hurt or killed. The men who tried to stop them in Illinois would catch up soon, or head them off, but Ramsey felt no panic in contemplation of this. Better to crash and burn, Father would say, than let it fall to them. The car was all of Father that remained, all that he had dreamed and worked for, and he would not let them have it.
He would have to drive.
Once, Father had let him sit on his lap and steer the Crusader while he worked the pedals. In the vast, empty lot of Fenway Park, he’d clung to the enormous wheel and wrestled the car into a lopsided elliptical loop again and again until long after the sun went down. He’d felt as if he were at the helm of a gigantic steamship, or somehow driving the whole wide world, piloting the great blue globe through the solar system in a cosmic slot race.
Looking down the sleek hood of the Crusader at the triple splash of illuminated asphalt in front of him, with Father’s voice whispering in his ear but never touching his hands or the wheel, the whole of creation suddenly seemed much smaller than it had before, and would never seem so dauntingly large again. “Son,” Father had said, “you can drive, which I suppose puts you more than halfway to what passes for manhood, around here.”
He could drive the car, but it wasn’t that part of it he was afraid of.
Long after the plan lay in place, he still sat and gathered himself for what he would have to do. Back here, he would die before he reached LA. He was thirsty and starving, and he had to get off the highway. He had to. He had to—
He knew what Father would do. He would simply do it.
Slowly, pins and needles melting in his cramped limbs, Ramsey straightened and put his feet down on the floor. He closed his eyes and held his breath, and his hands went up to the front headrests, gripped the lush velvet padding. Father’s was rigid with dried blood, and Mother’s was draped in her windblown hair. His hands wanted to go numb and let go, but he couldn’t weaken, now. If he did, he’d never get up again. Willing his hands to become dead clamps, he hauled his body up off the seat and slid forward until his chin perched on the bench seat between the two rests.
He let the breath out, but didn’t open his eyes.
He waited for a magical miracle to save him, like in the Bible. Then he opened his eyes.
Father sat stiff and straight and headless behind the wheel. His right arm lay across his lap like a leash where Mother had dropped it after pulling his remains back in the window.
By selectively staring at him from the shoulders down, Ramsey could almost pretend that Father’s head was still there, could almost hear his voice muttering at Uncle Charlie about the car’s performance. If one looked around the mangled stump of Father’s neck or the maroon apron of gore down the front of his white Arrow shirt, he could tell himself Father was just fine, it had all been a bad dream—
Mother was easier to look at, at first. With her face turned to the glass, she might have been napping, though her bosom did not stir, and the glass was not fogged by breath. The car of Tomorrow had stopped time, and she lay still forever in the instant between breaths, between heartbeats. He fought the childish impulse to shake her and try to break the spell.
If a miracle was going to save him, it would have happened before now. At her feet, through the icebox window, beaded with condensation, he saw regimented rows of sandwiches, a bunch of bananas, a basket of strawberries and a jug of water. He fixed his sights on this as he stepped up onto the seats, flinching reflexively at imaginary warnings to get his shoes off the upholstery.
He levered his arms on the front seats and sprang over before his mind could recoil and take it back. He went over the bench into the space between his parents, slithered into the spill of maps and checklists. He jerked away from the touch of Father’s hand, the rigor mortis making the fingers into a rake that gouged his side. He rolled over against Mother’s thigh and slipped down onto the floorboard. Mother’s knees dug into his back, but he couldn’t squeeze himself any further under the dash to get away, so he willed himself to ignore it.
The icebox made it easier. He tore open the tight sheath of wax paper on a sandwich without checking what it was. Just the smell of Father’s pastrami and Swiss cheese with onions normally soured him on the idea of food itself, but he devoured it, biting his own thumb in his zeal. He sluiced out his guts with the water, spilling and splashing it over his blood-sticky fingers and face.
With the water inside him, he could suppress his childish fears, but the grown-up ones became much worse. The gravity of the future beyond this trip pulled him down. He could drive the car or let it drive itself, but there would be an end to the road, and life beyond that suddenly seemed as unimaginable as life beyond the grave.
He was an orphan. Father and Mother had no family to take him in. Father’s fortunes were bound up in the company, and the company was gone, swallowed up by the invisible forces that secretly ran the world. There would be no Cobb Crusader, no bold new age of free energy and immortal automobiles, no perpetual motion highway to Tomorrow. Father and Mother had chosen to die rather than go into the blighted future that was left to them. How could he hope to fare any better?
If he was a man, he might have crumbled under such a choice, but he had not yet learned to reach the pedals. He had nothing left except the car, which, in every real sense, possessed him.
Life in the car might not be so bad. He could stop and bury his parents and just keep driving. In Russia, Father said, Stalin had the Reds building roads all over, even though nobody had a car, just building in a mad frenzy of empty effort, roads going from nowhere to nowhere, round and round in circles. To drive across eleven time zones of empty countryside like that, like a nomad on the Steppes, forever and ever, would not be so bad a fate…
He screwed his eyes shut and climbed out of the foot well, clutching the dashboard while splaying his legs around Mother’s still form. As he stood, he looked back as the car went over a bump and her face turned and stared into his. Her eyes were glazed marbles that showed him his shrinking reflection as he screamed and retreated back into the foot well.
Death had not granted her a gentle refuge. In sleep, something had come for her that contorted her ashen face into a tragic mask, some revelation even darker than what had driven her to swallow all her pills at once. A strand of drool hung from her slack jaw and anchored itself to the beaded breast of her cashmere sweater.
This is not Mother, he told himself, screwing his eyes shut and forcing his mind to work its own magic. Do not remember her like this, don’t let this picture stay in your head, this is just a body… just like an empty car.
That made it okay, somehow. He opened his eyes and saw what he had to do next. He climbed over her and into the space between the bodies. He took hold of Father’s hand and wrenched it over to lay it across Mother’s thigh. Then he turned around and shifted his weight into his father’s lap.
He had expected the seat to be hard and cold, like the porch glider in front of their house in autumn, but the flabby softness of his father’s flesh, the turgid swelling of his belly like a hot water bottle, made Ramsey sick up a little. The body took on his weight with a horrid shifting of gas pockets and decaying fluids. Fetid swamp gas erupted from Father’s neck and bottom at the same time, a ripe one so loud and rank Ramsey might have died of giggles, if he was not so very close to vomiting.
Ramsey exhaled and clamped shut his lips, plugged his nose until the spell passed. He leaned out into the bracing wind and screamed at the top of his lungs. A sign said Tucumcari was fifty miles away, and to stop at the McCutcheon Ranch roadside diner for pie and coffee and a glimpse of Mystery Myrtle, the Living Headless Chicken. A flatbed truck with a tower of chicken cages honked at him as he passed it.
Ramsey relaxed in his dead father’s lap and put his hands on the wheel. On the radio, the plague of static had eaten up the fire-breathing minister, and Ramsey turned the dial until he found a station that played big band records out of Albuquerque. An eternally prolonged, ever-intensifying Gene Krupa drum solo went on and on as he gripped the wheel, the syncopated polyrhythms clashing and crashing into strange new forms as predatory horns prowled the underbrush, avid with menace, baring teeth and claws at the horn section searching for the smallest break through which to pounce and reclaim the song. Ramsey bobbed his head jerkily to the beat, his jaw working in counterpoint as the tuneless pattern of notes his father taught him began to spill out over the rhythm.
An exit swam up out of the rolling sand-pastures, a sign pointing the way down an oiled gravel two-lane road to somewhere called Waterloo. His feet kicked uselessly at the distant pedals, but he could steer.
Ramsey pushed the cruise control lever down and shut it off, and the car immediately began to slow. He yanked the wheel down hard and rejoiced as the car began to bank, turning off the highway and nosing towards the Waterloo exit.
The car jerked, the defiant wheel returning to station under his hand, aimed straight as ever down the passing lane. The cruise control came back on and the car sped up to sixty.
Ramsey’s hands flew off the wheel as if he’d been shocked. They twitched in the air like dead frog legs galvanized by electrical current, as if the hideous vitality of the car had been transmitted into him. He leaned back, squeezing a gust of stale air and curdled blood from Father’s neck-hole, and rebounded against the wheel and expelled all his breath. Eyes tearing up, he screamed, “Let me go! What do you want?”
“We want to help you, Ramsey,” a voice came from the radio, so clear and crisp it might have spoken inside his own head. It was the voice of the Car of Tomorrow, the one innovation Father had failed to tell him about. “We can help you, but first, we have to know…”
Ramsey looked around for some sign of life, but aside from the glimmering lights of the instrument panel, he saw nothing untoward, no staring electrical eyes peering out of the dash.
“Your father confided in you, Ramsey, didn’t he? He told you everything about the Crusader, and how it worked.”
Ramsey felt his heart sink. It wasn’t the car. With the car, he might have struck a bargain. The car only wanted to drive, to go on forever, and he could accept that, he could give himself to it, but the voices on the radio were the men from the oil companies.
“Your father built one hell of a car, son, but he did something to it, we can’t figure out…”
“You go to hell!” he screamed, and yanked the wheel again. As before, it tugged back against him, shrugging off his weight and returning to its course. He pulled harder, throwing all his weight against it.
“It’s useless, Ramsey—”
They would stop him. They would take the car. They would steal Father’s most prized invention, the super-conductive polymer that made the fuel cell extract hydrogen from water and channeled the energy to create a perfect engine. Other fuel cells were made with gold, and cost millions to do the work of a few dry-cell batteries. Father’s was a thousand times more efficient because of the molecular arcana he worked on the polymer. The notes he’d left behind in Boston were all flawed forgeries, the originals all burned. The only remaining copy was folded in Father’s breast pocket, the single sheet of paper he’d hoped to show the world in Los Angeles.
“Your father would have wanted his work to live on, to help people, son. Don’t you see that?”
Without looking, he reached behind him for the pocket, and he could already taste the melted-chocolate-copper bloody pulp of it in his mouth. He gagged on it as if he’d done it and done it and would have to do it again, but the bastards would make him keep doing it until he slipped up, and they won.
He dug deeper and deeper into the pocket and hit bottom. There was no paper. Had he already eaten it? Maybe he forgot it.
He stretched out and touched the brake, slid down below the dash and stomped it as he held onto the wheel. Something popped horribly out of true in his shoulder. The car seized up and felt as if it stood on its front end for a moment, then it was sliding sideways.
Then it stopped.
“Goddamit, that’s not supposed to happen—”
Ramsey hauled on the door latch and threw himself out onto the road. His bones sang with the vibrations of the car ride. He clung to the stillness of the asphalt, pouring all his inertia into it until his body began to shake with honest, cleansing sobs of grief.
He heard sirens.
He climbed to his knees and looked around. The Interstate passed through a cattle pasture in the purpling dusk. The sun was setting a few degrees to the left of the highway, and on the horizon, he saw the glittering lights of the city of Albuquerque. Then it all flickered and dimmed, and switched off.
Ramsey screamed at the dark. He tried to climb back into the car, but the door was locked. Through his fingers, he saw that the road and the car were all that was left of the world.
The two-lane highway was enclosed in a tunnel of corrugated glass that looked like enormous versions of the television screens he saw once at the World’s Fair. Where it had lain straight as a plumb line across half of America, the highway now bent away in both directions, describing part of an enclosed, circular track. A slot ran down the center of the road with a woven steel cable down inside it like the cable cars in San Francisco. The cable was wrenched out of the slot where the Cobb Crusader prototype sat sideways on the road.
There was no Albuquerque, no Chicago, no Los Angeles. The car ran on the track, round and round inside the television tunnel, forever.
Ramsey tried to get up, but he felt so heavy, so weak, he decided to just sit back down on the road. No cars were coming, the wailing sirens never getting closer. He looked at his hands, marveled at the wrinkles and brown spots, at the forest of blue veins under rice-paper skin. When did that happen?
Just ahead of the car, the television tunnel opened up, and the sirens got much louder. He put his hands over his ears, but the sound went right through, right into the metal in his dentures.
A big truck that looked like the god of all dung beetles with red flashing lights all over it rolled into the road. Men poured down off it with firehoses and boxes of tools, and they surrounded Father’s car. Two men in white coats came and stood over him, sorrowfully shaking their heads. Ramsey tried to make out their faces, but they seemed so tall, clouds closed over their faces.
“It’s getting worse. If he had anything to tell us, if he even knew, don’t you think he would have, by now?”
“Have you got a better idea?”
They just stood over him. His head hurt. He supposed they were going to give him more of the medicine that clouded his head until next time, but right now, he could almost understand what they needed. When one of them leaned down to put his face close and meet his gaze, Ramsey really wanted to help.
“Now… Mr. Cobb, I need for you to try to listen to me. It’s very important. Can you do that?”
Ramsey tried to nod. The muscles in his neck felt like rusty baling wire.
“Good, good,” the man sputtered excitedly. “Your father made this car so that it could run forever—in theory—but we’ve reverse engineered it from the ground up, and we can’t duplicate the process, we can’t figure out why ours won’t work. Do you understand?”
When he was in the car the first time, he ate the note, but they never knew, so they put nothing in fake Father’s pocket.
He opened his mouth to speak now, but no sound would come out. He didn’t know if his voice box had given out, or if his mind would not let him speak, the car would not let him tell it any way but the way Father taught him—
“Now, we’re sorry for this ruse, but it’s very important.”
“There’s no more oil, Ramsey. We’re dying on our feet. Outside, the food riots, the civil wars… It’s all coming apart, but we can still save it. The future your father worked to build, to make it happen, you have to help us. Do you understand?”
Ramsey understood. His father understood, too, had known all along. He had prepared Ramsey for this. Ever the absent-minded inventor, Father employed a myriad of mnemonic devices, like committing his formula to musical notes.
Ramsey hummed them now, staring fixedly into the man’s eyes and waving his hands to make him understand that the song detailed the chemical process for the chain reaction that powered the car. He sang the atonal notes louder and louder, but the man’s face crumpled and his arm cocked as if he wanted to smash Ramsey’s face in.
“Again?” his colleague crowed. “That’s all he ever does. He’s cracked—”
“He knows,” the other man snarled. “I can see it in his goddamned eyes. Tell them to fix the cable and get the replica back on the track. Clean him up, get him back in the car and doped up.
“He’s got a long drive ahead of him.”