On the Road
At a certain point, he couldn’t say when exactly, Leon realized he was not alone in his car. The small Quixote, his Quixote, had appeared, and was perched on its donkey standing precariously on the passenger’s seat, its lance pointed down towards the floor of the car. He became aware of its presence gradually, so that when he knew for sure that it was there he was hardly surprised at all. Then again he had become very difficult to surprise.
The Quixote was silent. It watched the road just like Leon did, like a hitchhiker happy to converse but not going so far as to compel it. Leon wondered how much he would be able to find out from it by the time they reached their destination. Twenty-eight hundred miles was a long time to ride together. When they crossed into Nevada, the state of mountains and deserts, several hours into the drive, Leon decided to speak to it.
“What are you, exactly?” he asked, turning the radio down.
After a pause: I can’t tell you.
Because you have to find out for yourself.
“And I’ll find all my answers at the nexus?”
“The place where worlds collide. Isn’t that right?”
The place where you are to try to make your mark.
Leon became quiet again. He hazarded a look to the side at the thing and was struck again at how ugly and ridiculous it was. It was better than were all the others, because it came with a purpose, ostensibly, and it wore a golden halo about its head, but the rest of them… why oh why a motorcycle helmet?
He didn’t bother to ask this question, it was too ridiculous, and the answer, if he got one, was highly unlikely to satisfy. This was his first line of thinking anyway, but when the Quixote refused to disappear Leon decided to hell with it.
“Why do you wear motorcycle helmets?”
I don’t know.
Yep. Just as he’d thought.
“To have a foot in both worlds?”
Our appearance isn’t overly important. Everyone sees what their mind wants them to see.
“So everyone sees something different?”
Within reason. No. Everyone sees what you see, just not at the same magnitude. Furthermore they refuse to believe their eyes. That’s why they become so angry. It’s just too strange.
“How do you talk to one another?”
We don’t. Just like always.
They were on a long stretch of highway, surrounded by impenetrable blackness. They passed a sign indicating a rest stop with gas and picnic tables some fifty miles down the road.
“Will you tell me why you came to me? Of all people?”
Because you were as good as anyone else might have been. And we have not been disappointed.
“Who’s ‘we’ while we’re at it?”
I’m not telling you.
“You mean there’s more than one?”
There’s several. You saw. You threw one of my brethren into a storm drain. It will take quite some doing to get him out of there again.
“Brethren,” Leon mouthed. “Your brethren stole my girlfriend.”
Yes he did.
“And you still call him your brother?”
I only call him what he is. I don’t have to be proud of it.
Leon tried fiddling with the radio but no stations came in. He’d come to regret that he’d started talking to the thing in the first place. There was a cold sense of inevitability about it that chilled him to the marrow.
“I have no idea what’s in store for me,” he said.
You’re right, you don’t. You can be afraid if you want to be, Leon.
I know. But I’m here to help you.
“What if you’re lying?”
“What if I’m taken trying to rescue her?”
If that happens then we’ll deal with it.
My brethren and I.
“I’m so afraid of you.”
You should be. But I’m on your side, Leon, and I believe that you can do it. It’s not impossible. We might be able to get her back to you.
“I’m not asking you any more questions.”
“Can you go away, please?”
Is that what you want?
“Yes it is.”
Okay, Leon. I’ll leave you be. But remember that I’m right beside you if you want to keep talking.
With that Leon no longer sensed a presence beside him. He looked to his right and sure enough the thing was gone. Just the little figurine itself, in the cup-holder, staring up at him. Leon shuddered at the memory its sibilant voice, and he still had no fewer questions on his mind. The problem was that asking them took a degree of courage and abandon that Leon simply could not summon. He did not want to know why Heather was taken, where she was now or what was happening to her. It was too much. He wanted only to rescue her, to take back what he had known was a risk going into the wonderful, wild night that they’d had together.
How neatly it all fit together, as if he were just going through the motions of life while a vast machinery just beyond the point of visibility wound and tightened, stretched and pulled at the very fabric of existence. And why a motorcycle helmet? How could it speak so seriously when it looked so ridiculous?
The next sign they passed said the rest stop was 50 miles ahead.
Leon blinked hard and picked up the Quixote and held it with one hand while he held the wheel with the other.
If he were to be taken, if that’s what he was walking into, he wasn’t going to go without a fight, and this thing, right here, might be just the weapon he was looking for.
Leon had filled up on gas upon leaving Oakland, so it wasn’t solely for want of fuel that he stopped at the rest stop. He didn’t want to drive himself to exhaustion, a real risk given the vast distance before him. Heather didn’t need a tired shell of him to arrive, worn down by the road and the stress and who knows what else he might come across along the way. He would force himself to take a break.
The gas station was abandoned of automobiles when Leon arrived, a station in the desert in the middle of nowhere. There was a small community of houses and stores built around it, a highway town with a road sign that signaled it as “Johnsville, Population 23.” How anyone could happily live here was as mysterious to Leon as were the Quixotes.
He parked at the lone pump and got out of the car, stretching his legs, back and shoulders, swinging his arms to and fro. It was past sunset and the night darkness was broken by the fluorescents of the gas station overhang and the light coming from the store. The quiet was impenetrable.
“Something’s wrong here,” he said to himself.
Yes there is, he heard in his mind.
Leon zipped up his hoody against the chill and walked towards the station’s convenience store. He noticed broken glass glittering in the light just in front of the doorway, and that it had come from the door, which was shattered. Inside he could see shelves fallen over and merchandise — bags of chips, candy, cheap novels and magazines — spilled across the floor.
He didn’t need gas especially, he could have turned around and left, but he forced himself forward, sensing that another, macabre piece of the puzzle was about to fall into place. His shoes crunched over the glass from the doorway, and, when he was in place, pulling the door open as the ‘Pull’ sign instructed, saw that there was more than cheap food and reading material sprawled across the floor. There were people too. Two of them, a man and a woman, dead as doornails, blood splattered onto the shelves behind where they’d been standing and pooled on the dirty linoleum beneath them.
At the counter stood an elderly white man, quivering. When he noticed Leon he pulled a long-barreled, dull metal shotgun on him and he cocked it. Leon raised his hands instantly.
“Don’t shoot!” he chirped.
“Whaddaya want?!” the old man hollered, sighting down the barrel.
“Just some gas,” Leon replied.
“The police will be here soon enough.”
“You called them?”
“I’m turning myself in.”
Leon thought a moment and decided it would be safer for all considered if he were not here when the police arrived.
“I didn’t recognize them,” the old man said, gesturing with the shotgun at the people on the floor, tears muffling his voice.
“You didn’t recognize them?”
“I’ve known them my whole life.”
“Will you please put the gun down?” Leon asked. “I just want some gas.”
“I’ll give you some fucking gas,” he said, one hand snaking away from the gun to the cash register. “Twenty dollars’ worth,” he confirmed.
“Why did you do it?”
“I… I… I don’t know. I didn’t recognize them. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize them. It’s not halloween yet.”
“Not for another six months.”
“Like some trick or treaters.”
“Full grown at that.”
The old man let the barrel of the gun fall. He placed it on the counter. He was wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball hat and a red plaid shirt. His skin was a worn, sandblasted bronze.
“Do you recognize me?” Leon asked.
The old man shook his head. Leon watched as his eyes filled up with tears.
“My life’s over,” he said. “And I took the lives of two others.”
“You sure did.”
Leon had never seen dead bodies before. He was surprised at his own composure.
“Do you… d-d-do you still want gas?”
Leon shook his head.
“I don’t need it,” he said.
The old man crumpled over the counter, put his face in his hands and broke down, his back and shoulders jumping with the strength of his sobs.
“I’m leaving,” Leon said, backing away. “I just want to tell you, sir, that it’s not all your fault.”
“Then who’s fault is it!?” he cried out.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’m going to find out.”
“I don’t know how you expect to do that.”
“Neither do I.”
“I’ve lived a long life,” the old man said. “I just didn’t expect it to end like this.”
“I wish I could help you,” Leon said.
“I’m a murderer.”
Leon was silent. It was only the truth after all.
The old man was still crying when Leon turned around and returned to his car. It would have been some kind of sacrilege to pump gas despite what he had just witnessed, and besides he didn’t want to be here when the police arrived. More Quixotes and regular people, heavily armed, could make for a volatile cocktail.
I know what you’re thinking about, the Quixote whispered. And you’re absolutely right. It’s happening all across the country.
“Why are you doing it?”
It’s not me, Leon. I promise you.
Leon got into his car and keyed the ignition and pulled out of the gas station, got back onto the highway and before too long had reached his seventy mph cruising speed. Not a minute later a Nevada Highway Police cruiser passed him going the other way, lights flashing and siren blaring.
All across the country, he thought, and, with the enormity of it, was afraid all over again for Heather O’Connor. He prayed that he had enough gas to get to the next station.