We all know a Paul. A person who seems to see stuff that isn't there. The type the polite call quirky and the blunt call nuts. Conspiracies? He's got a few. He's got his finger on how the world really works. He knows what kind of shit is coming down the pipe. Flee across the West Texas desert to Mexico? Makes sense to him. Feel like you're being watched? You bet your ass someone is watching. Best turn off your cell phone. Troubles? Of course, that's just part of life. Doubts? No time for doubts. Shit is getting real. Get in, buckle up, crack open a beer. The only real question is how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to follow?
"An interesting and thought provoking novel worth a solid five stars."
"Campbell has put together a gripping story readers will enjoy."
"It's a magnificent, gripping tale, one which you will find yourself hard pressed to put down."
"The Uncanny Valley is a great read and well worth picking up. Just remember, tinfoil is sold separately."
The America I was born in is dead. It’s not that it was really much better than the one we have now, but at least we had the illusion, something to believe in. Anymore it’s just right there in your face, something that can’t be ignored. Maybe it’s the technology that has done us in. That always seemed to be the limiting factor in the past. Hell, anymore everyone walks around with a little tracking device in their pocket. They can’t leave it alone for a second, might miss a Facebook update or something. We’re all connected. We’re all together. We’re all watched. How much longer until the curtain is drawn back? How much longer until the hood is opened and we’re forced to look at all the gears? I don’t know, but you won’t catch me goose stepping with the crowd.
My left arm spasms, then my right. A sharp cutting pain in both that fades to the uncomfortable buzzing of a hit funny bone. My heart beats loudly in my ears, the slow rolling rhythm of lubs and dubs. The world shifts back into focus. Alice bounces across the desert at the nail biting speed of 30 miles per hour. Her aftermarket struts squeaking with every bump. Jostling across the flat sandy ground with the sagebrush and half dead greasewoods whipping past on each side. My mother’s Saint Christopher medallion, hanging from the rearview mirror, flashes in the starlight. I sit in the driver seat, my hands gripping the wheel tightly, my head leaning forward so my nose is only inches from the windshield. Occasionally I jerk the wheel one way or the other. Trying to avoid an especially large rock, thick sagebrush, or imagined coyote. Every bit of my efforts are bent on keeping us moving forward into the bleakness of the west Texas wild.
Thirty miles per hour may not be fast on the highway, it’s damn near illegal on the freeway, but it’s on the edge of insanity when you’re driving out across the desert. Even more so when it’s the middle of the night, with a new moon, and your headlights are covered with transparent red packing tape. Why transparent red packing tape? Because red light doesn’t ruin your night vision. Plus it’s a lot harder for an observer to see at a distance. Now is not the time for stupid questions. There’s not a lot to worry about on this patch of desert off of Highway 90. It’s pretty desolate. My biggest concern is gullies, if we hit one of those we could all be fucked.
Off in the distance the lights of farmhouses glint like stars. Well, not really like stars. It’s a clear night and no moon, so the stars really look like stars. The farmhouses are just poor imitations compared to the skies above. There is nothing like a clear moonless night sky in the middle of nowhere. It’s something you don’t get to see in the city. Cities are too bright. They’re always too bright. There’s no such real thing as darkness in a city. All those houses, headlights, lit-up signs, and street lamps create a dome of light, which only the biggest and best stars can push through. In a city the sky is a roof with a couple little lights twinkling. In the middle of nowhere the sky is a great emptiness filled with the wonders of the universe.
I have to be careful looking up. I keep getting drawn in, my brown eyes lifted upward. Millions of fiery balls of gas stretching their light over millions of years to reach us. The great cloudy band of the Milky Way stretching across the heavens. Bring me any asshole who thinks they're an important big shit, stick them out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the night sky, and I guarantee they’ll come back humbled. You can’t help but feel insignificant. That’s why people huddle together around the light in their man made jungles. Hell, even cavemen stayed close to their fires. It’s all arrogance, not fear. They weren’t afraid of any god damn monsters. They were just afraid of having to look up into the void. Afraid to realize everything about them doesn’t mean shit.
Yep, the dome of light over our cities hides a lot of ugly truths about the universe. It also hides a lot of ugly truths about ourselves as well. When you're in the city you don’t notice all the strange twinkling stars that move across the sky at a rapid pace. You don’t notice all the damn satellites peering down at you with their camera lense eyes. Searching, tracking, and watching. When you're out in the middle of nowhere you can’t ignore them because you can see them. You can’t pretend that you're all alone. You can’t ignore the cold hard……
Something bounds through the red dimness of the headlights. I hit the brakes and swerve. My head bumps against the windshield. Not too hard. Thank god. Shit. I need to be watching ahead of me. Not gazing out at the stars like I’m god damn Galileo. This is no time to quit paying attention.
Lindsey’s voice cuts through the silence of the cab.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Looked like an antelope.”
She looks behind us at the kids buckled in the backseat. Making sure they’re all right. Both are still sound asleep. Those kids have been through so much shit that they could probably sleep through Judgment Day. I lean back in my seat and rub the sore spot on my head. My hand runs through my salt and pepper hair. Still thick despite my age. I have a thick skull. At least I didn’t whack my nose. It’s been broken enough times. More bulbous than Roman anymore.
“Where are we?”
“I don’t know. We’ve been off the road for a couple of miles now.
“Are you sure you can find Mexico?”
“Of course I can find Mexico. It’s just everything south of us. Can you grab me a beer?”
“Are you sure you should have one? You’re driving.”
The classic line of questioning to a simple request. God I wish she was still asleep. I love my wife, but sometimes I love the silence more. Besides, I really don’t think she has the right to question me having one beer while driving. Not after all the shit she’s pulled.
“Yes, I’m sure. Just hand me one and go back to sleep. It will be daylight soon.”
Lindsey reaches back behind her, pulls a beer out of the cooler and hands it to me. I watch her bony frame out of the corner of my eye, and consider calling it a night so that the two of us can have some fun before the kids wake up. There’s not enough damn time for that though. We have to keep going. We have to cover as much ground as we can. There will always be more time later. I have to stay focused.
I crack open the beer and Lindsey settles back in her seat and closes her eyes. I sip my beer, stare forward, and enjoy the silence. In my head I remind myself to mark down that I drank a beer. We’re on tight supplies and everything needs to be kept account of. It’s probably a little early to be dipping into my beer supply. Thank god we stopped in Marfa to replenish after the Big Bend didn’t work out as planned.
We had six cases of beer to start with. I’ve drank seventeen beers so far, thirteen of which were needed to calm me down after all the shit at the Big Bend. We then bought another two cases at the store in Marfa. That would give us a total of seven cases plus seven extra in the cooler minus the one I was drinking. Twenty-four beers per case times seven cases is one-hundred-and-sixty-two beers.
Wait. Is that right. That doesn’t seem right. Four times seven is twenty-eight, plus twenty times seven which is one hundred and forty. You add those two together and you get……..shit. My mind is blank and for some reason simple math seems to be eluding me. My memory is shit but I usually have no problem with numbers. Granted I haven’t slept in a while, I’m exhausted, a little strung out, and most definitely distracted. But this shouldn’t be that hard. Maybe if I break it down differently. Twelve times fourteen. Two times four is….
“It just all seems so unreal doesn’t it.”
Lindsey’s voice sounds loud in the silence. The only other sound is the hum of the engine, the squeaking of the aftermarket shocks, and the fizzing of my beer.
“I said it just seems so unreal. You know, driving out here in the middle of nowhere in the dead of the night. Rushing about like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off. Each day a blur so we can barely even think about it.”
“We’re doing the best we can. I never asked for this.”
“I know. It’s just…..”
“It’s just I wish we could have brought Roger Snuggleton with us.”
God, this conversation again. It seems like every day since we threw everything we could get into Alice and got the hell out of Sweetwater she’s felt the damn need to bring up that fucking cat.
“I know Linds. I know, but we couldn’t find him and we sure as hell didn’t have time to start looking for him.”
“I know. I know. But still. We could have looked for him. We didn’t have to be in that big of a rush.”
My wife knows very little about the world. It’s times like these that I have to remind myself that she’s only twenty-seven. It doesn’t help any that I’ve tried to keep her sheltered from the worst of things. I keep my mouth shut and hope that will be the end of it. I sure as hell wasn’t going to put my family at risk for some god damn cat. Especially a cat, if I’m being honest about it, I never even really liked.
The most Roger Snuggle….whatever ever did for me was not claw my leg or vomit in my shoe. I would have put him in a bag and drowned him a long time ago except Linds and kids adored the shit out of him. Either way, a cat shoved in a car on this type of trip would have been way too much trouble. An uncontrollable variable at a time when everything needs to stay under control. I take another drink of my beer and hope Linds has fallen back asleep. All of this talking is distracting me from my driving. I look at the speedometer. Alice has dropped down to twenty.
“It’s just that none of it seems real you know.”
I grunt to let her know I’m listening. If I don’t show I’m listening she’ll just get mad, and that’s not shit I really need right now.
“Sometimes I feel like none of this is real at all. That maybe I’m not real. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’m just some character in somebody else’s dream.”
I grunt again and take an extra large pull off my beer. I hate it when she gets fucking whimsical. I wish she would just shut up and go to back to sleep. Leave me alone with my thoughts. I have to do all the thinking for everybody 24/7. Don’t I deserve just a little time to be alone with my own thoughts?
“Wouldn’t it be funny if all of this is just some dream Roger is having? That all these weird things are just in his head while he’s snoozing under the porch?”
I look over at my wife. She gazes out into the night, half of her face blackened by shadow. I hope the look on my face gets my thoughts of “what the hell” through to her, but apparently it’s too dark.
“I can tell you one thing. If this is all just some dream Roger is having I guarantee he’s probably all wiped out on catnip.”
She giggles to herself. I look at my wife’s gaunt face again and say nothing. I hope to god she’s not back on the drugs again. We spent way too much time and money getting her cleaned up last time. If she’s back on then I might as well dump her out right here in the middle of the desert. Don’t get me wrong. I love my wife more than I love myself, but I love my kids more. They come first in all of this. They’re the important thing.
We ride in silence for a while, both of us watching the shadowy terrain slide past. I finish my beer, crinkle up the can, and throw it on the floorboards. No roads, no worries about getting pulled over for drunk driving. I’m glad my wife isn’t talking right now, especially if all she’s going to do is talk about that damn cat. I like little pussy talk and little talk from pussy. I laugh a bit to myself.
“What’s so funny?”
If I tell her what I’m laughing at she’ll just call me sexist and go off on some kind of rant. I’m not sexist. I believe women are capable of doing anything a man can do. I just enjoy a sexist joke now and again, that’s all.
“Who laughs at nothing?”
“I guess I do.”
“Whatever asshole. I don’t really care anyways.”
Blessed silence again for a few minutes.
“I wish we could listen to the radio.”
“We went over this a hundred times. Anything that picks up a transmission can also transmit.”
“I know. I know. I’m not stupid.”
I think about pointing out that if she wanted to prove that hypothesis she needed to quit acting stupid, but I don’t. Marriage is about love and compromise, but mostly about knowing when to keep your mouth shut. Silence reigns again and after a while I hear gentle breathing sounds indicating that Linds has returned to the Land of Nod. The well of words has finally run dry for the night.
I breathe a sigh of relief and lean back behind the seat to grab a second beer, reminding myself to take two off the inventory sheet in the morning. Can’t forget to take them off the inventory sheet. There’s not going to be anymore stops in civilization from here on out. We have to make what we have last. I open the beer and take a drink, then move my head back close to the windshield, and watch the suspicious satellites go round and round overhead.