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       John Gone, p.12

           Michael Kayatta

  Chapter 10

  John awoke in a grey haze of plastic-diffused light. The first thing that struck him was the biting cold welling in his bones. He breathed in strongly, shivering.

  “It’s a side effect of the watch,” Kala said, suddenly perched back atop John’s wrist. “And it’s only going to get worse the farther you jump.”

  “Shut up,” John said quietly, currently the loudest he could amplify his voice. Carefully, he slid his hand beneath him. His fingers felt damp plastic. He quickly recoiled his touch from the surface and wiped the wet onto his jeans.

  John opened his eyes and found that his vision had already returned to normal. A sound rumbled beneath him. A car honked its horn. His hearing seemed fine as well.

  That recovery was faster than last time, he thought. At least something’s getting better.

  “John, we need to talk about your situation,” Kala said.

  “No, we don’t,” John answered, sitting up from his slouch.

  He looked around and knew immediately where he was, a portable bathroom unit, the type people used at public events. Where the unit was, however, was an entirely different question. The constant vibration at his feet paired with the airflow quickly seeping through the small holes in the bathroom’s sides told him that he was probably experiencing the “portable” part of this particular portable toilet.

  “And what’s with all the bathrooms!” John suddenly shouted at his watch, not really expecting an answer.

  Kala chuckled at the question. “I know it seems odd, but there’s a perfectly reasonable, scientific explanation for it.”

  “What possible explanation could there be?” Mouse asked, climbing from John’s bag.

  “How did the girl one get here?” Kala exclaimed.

  John turned the watch’s face toward Mouse.

  “Well, you really are a little-miss-science, now aren’t you?” he said patronizingly.

  Mouse sharply bent its right hand upward at the hologram. Kala was probably intelligent enough to realize that if the robot had been built with fingers, its middle one would currently be seated in the upward-position.

  “Did you have a nice nap?” Kala asked her.

  “Yes, actually,” Mouse answered awkwardly, as though the question had been sincere.

  “That’s another thing. You never explained why people around me are passing out,” John added.

  “The device is an infiltration unit designed to operate in secret,” Kala said. “It emits that light as a way of rendering any potential witnesses near the event unconscious before, well, witnessing. It’s meant strictly for emergencies. Normally, you’d use the watch in private, thereby making the function arbitrary. Don’t worry, it’s not damaging.”

  “Where are we, John?” Mouse asked.

  “Pretty sure it’s a Port-a-Potty. Maybe on a truck. Feels and sounds like it, anyway,” he answered. “I’ll check.”

  John stood shakily on the plastic floor, walked to the door, and tried to push it open. When it stubbornly refused his first attempt, he pushed harder, eventually inching the plastic outward just enough to spy a thin, yellow rope tied around the outside of the unit.

  “Try the bottom of the door,” Mouse suggested. “If there’s no rope there, we might be able to slip through.”

  John bent down awkwardly in the small space, being careful to avoid backing into the damp toilet space behind him. He pushed at the bottom corner of the door with success. Its cheap plastic bent easily, and John peered through the opening he’d created to the outside.

  The only sight available was the swiftly moving asphalt of a highway and the sides of two other units tied to his left and right. The unit he was in seemed to be located on the rear edge of a large truck’s open flatbed, one stall in a large shipment of portable toilets. There was no tailgate securing him. John took a moment to appreciate the thin yellow rope he’d been annoyed with just moments before. He backed slowly to the seat behind him.

  “Well?” Mouse asked.

  “Just road,” he answered. “We’re on the back of a truck tied to the rest of the cargo. Looks like we’re staying put.”

  “Might be a bit boring, but that’s not such a bad thing,” the robot answered.

  “Where are you precisely?” Kala asked.

  “No idea,” John said. “All I could see outside was the road.”

  The doctor sighed loudly. “Stick your arm outside for another moment,” he said.

  “What, no G.P.S.?” John asked.

  “We were missing the whole “S” part of that in the seventies,” Kala answered snidely. “Not very subtle shooting them into the sky from underground silos, you know?”

  John followed Kala’s suggestion without further comment and stuck his arm out from the bottom of the bent-open door.

  “Either Vermont or Montreal,” Kala said confidently as John brought him back inside the Port-a-Potty thirty seconds later. “Probably a trucker’s route on whatever highway they’ve built up here since my day.”

  “You can tell that just from the road?” John asked.

  “The trees,” Kala explained. “Plantae, Magnoliophyta, Magnoliopsida, Fagales, Betulaceae, Betula,” he rattled off quickly. “Birch trees. Judging by their height, yield, health, coloring, and positioning, we’re most likely moving north from Vermont to Canada. Somewhere in the middle of there, anyway,” Kala said.

  “I could have told you that,” Mouse mumbled quietly.

  John raised an eyebrow toward its visor.

  “Okay, maybe not,” it relented. “But I knew the genus.”

  “We got lucky this jump,” John told the robot and hologram. “I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the quiet.” He sat back down on the shoddy plastic toilet seat and tried to find a comfortable way to position his body. “Maybe I’ll even take a nap.”

  “Someone else in one of these things?” a voice called from somewhere else on the truck.

  John tensed at the sound of an unfamiliar voice.

  “Come on, now,” the voice said, “I heard you in there. You and your girlfriend. Don’t worry, now; I’m not with the fuzz.” The voice laughed wildly as if someone had just told an extremely funny joke.

  “Who are you?” John called back accusatorily.

  “Just another rider like yourself and your lady,” the voice responded. “Name’s Boone. King of the Open Road!” He laughed again.

  “Are you in one of the units?” John asked.

  “Sure am. Got one of those urinal cakes in here putting off a good flame to fight the cold. You got one of those over there? It’s a little pink disk. Lookalike a hockey puck,” Boone said.

  “No,” John answered without checking. “What are you doing here?”

  “Don’t know what the confusion is,” he answered. “Just riding the train.”

  “This isn’t a train.”

  “It’s better than one!” the man replied enthusiastically. “Goes about the same speed and I got myself a private room to travel in style with. It’s got a fire, a bathroom, and a sun roof.”

  John looked up and saw vented slats that he assumed Boone was referring to.

  “Train bums never had it so good,” Boone continued. “Kings never had it so good. I once knew a guy who took the ... ” He paused. “More of you guys back here?”

  “No, just me and the girl,” John answered back.

  “There’s just some banging going on toward the back here,” Boone explained. “So much for my quiet ride.”

  John stood and cocked his head slightly to one side, hoping that directing one of his ears to the open venting at the top of the Port-a-Potty would help him hear what Boone was referring to. His experiment was a success, but soon the noise became frequent and loud enough to have been heard by anyone nearby.

  “John,” Mouse said quietly, “not to be an alarmist, but--”

  “I know,” John answered in whisper. “I’m thinking the same thing. We need to get off this truck.”

sp; “I’m just going to assume you two are speaking of the men who gave you such chase the night before,” Kala chimed in. “You’re probably right, you know. If the Advocates knew how to track you before, they could certainly use the same method again.”

  “Advocates?” John asked.

  “There’s no time to explain them to you, Mr. Popielarski, and there would be nothing much to explain even if there was. Everything you need to know about them you’ve already personally experienced. You need to get away from here. If they catch you, you’ve doomed both of us. Move, now!” Kala shouted. The banging was getting stronger, and the loud sound of a man’s violent cough sounded between them.

  “Boone, you need to start getting out of there!” John shouted.

  “Shut up, you imbecile; right now those men are fishing blind,” Kala exclaimed. “There must be fifty units on a truck this large. Is it your intention to telegraph which one is yours?”

  “I don’t care,” John said. “Boone!” he yelled. “Are you hearing me?” He rifled through his messenger bag for something that could cut the yellow rope binding his door. “I’m not letting any more people die because of me and this stupid watch.”

  “Aren’t I also someone worth saving?” Kala asked quickly. “Keep yelling and you’ll never have the chance to do it!”

  Boone shouted back over Kala’s voice. “What did you say, pal?”

  John started to yell back. “Get out of--” His shout was interrupted by the deafening sound of a gunshot. John looked around his unit. There were no small, circular holes in any of the walls. Then, a second bullet was fired, somehow even louder than the first.

  Jordan Hal let his eyes leave the straight, unchanging road in front of him to glance at the leather-bound journal resting on his passenger seat. An idea for a new poem had just struck him, and he was feeling anxious to write it down among the others before he forgot its words. The next stop was still another fifty-three miles out, and he was in serious danger of losing at least some of the carefully chosen stanzas before then.

  He’d managed 148 poems in his eighteen years of trucking, though he’d not shared even one with his family or friends. No one but the other boys at the depot could understand road-poems, and though outsiders wouldn’t know it to be true, most of the truckers he knew shared the same hobby. After all, there wasn’t much else to do on those long three-day drives up the coast.

  A deafeningly loud noise suddenly broke Jordan’s train of thought. His hands inadvertently jerked the steering wheel of his truck. He recovered from the sudden swerve quickly and checked all five of his mirrors. Thank God, he thought. No one else on the road. Even a small swerve could mean catastrophe in a vehicle this size. He eyed his mirrors again and glanced to the back of his cab. What was that noise? It had almost sounded like a gunshot.

  Crinkling his nose, Jordan sniffed at the air. The cab smelled like melting plastic. That’s when he noticed the small hole in the passenger seat beside him. He reached his hand to the tear and felt the hot, blackened edges around it. What was going on here?

  A second sound, identical to the first, exploded through the truck. A bullet tore into the cab through the metal behind the seats and passed through Jordan’s right forearm. He screamed out in pain and clutched the wound with his other hand. Hijackers, he thought through the sting and shock. But why would they want a shipment of Port-a-Potties?

  With his hands off the wheel, the truck moved right, slowly drifting into the opposing lane. Jordan released his wound and grabbed at the steering wheel with his good hand. He caught its top and spun it left with more power than he’d intended. The truck jerked again. Worried he was losing control, Jordan straightened the wheel and applied the brakes, but the torque of his previous turn had shifted the weight of the truck’s bed too quickly.

  He looked outside to his modified side-view mirror in horror as his truck’s bed began swiveling independently of the cab toward the deep, forested hill bordering the left of the highway. Panicked, he yanked the steering wheel right again and crashed his boot onto the gas pedal, hoping to power back onto the road. Despite the effort, the back of his truck continued swinging wide until finally placing the majority of the vehicle’s weight along the side of the steep hill to the cab’s left.

  The next sound Jordan heard was an awful creaking as his vehicle’s balance finally shifted and the cab lost control to its weighty cargo-area, now dictating a new and opposite direction for his truck. Led in reverse by its bed, the vehicle began a furious and uncontrolled descent down the steep, wooded incline of the hill toward an unseen bottom below.

  A moment later, the back left tire blew out. The bed spun over wildly, releasing its cargo to the hillside. With the cab on its side and faced backward, Jordan weakly lifted his body enough to see from the window. An avalanche of Port-a-Potties was snowing past him down the side of the steep hill to its bottom, harshly colliding with the forest flora and each other.

  Jordan felt the temperature of his cab rising. Then, he saw the smoke. Using the last of his strength, he reached for his poetry journal lying open on the metal beside him. His fingers caught its spine and dragged it close. Against the shaking of his truck and through the black smoke filling his cab, he was able to read the first few lines of the first poem he’d ever written before the engine exploded.

  After the second gunshot, John heard the thin yellow rope snap just before his unit, along with the rest, was upside-down and tumbling out from the back of the truck and down the slope. His body lifted and bounced against the grey sidewall. He reached down for the hard plastic toilet seat beside him, still hinged to the unit’s most sturdy section. It was wet, but so was everything else.

  Suddenly, the Port-a-Potty’s door snapped off sharply against a log. John watched a green blur of grass and wildflowers wash quickly past the newly created opening as his unit continued to spin down the tall hill.

  “What’s going on?” he thought he heard Kala yell between the harsh bangs and bumps of the circling tumble.

  Meters later, the unit stopped suddenly, sending John’s backside uncomfortably against the wet plastic toilet seat behind him. From the open side of his Port-a-Potty, John watched ten other units break apart higher on the hill and trundle toward his at frightening speed. He braced his body for the coming impact.

  The first stall collided with John’s unit just a moment later, shaking him to the ground again and breaking itself in half upon impact with the side of his unit. A second and third unit crashed behind the first. Their impact shot its contents into John’s Port-a-Potty. A grisly looking man with a knotted beard tumbled uncontrollably on top of him.

  Looking past the man, John could see the cab of the truck and its flatbed, mammoth and twirling, headed down the hill after them, breaking small trees in its wake. John stood from beneath the grisly man and, moving solely on adrenaline, grabbed his tattered collar.

  “Ready?” John yelled into the man’s ear over the noise of the spinning carnage above.

  The bearded man wobbled his head. John couldn’t be sure if it was a nod or a byproduct of his daze, but there was no time to decide.

  John bounded deftly from the wreckage of the portable toilets and landed roughly on the grass a few feet to its side. The bearded man had leapt with him, but less aptly, and had only narrowly avoided losing both of his legs to the cab of the truck that smashed to a halt behind them a moment later. Its impact splintered and launched sections of grey semi-translucent plastic from its cargo into the air.

  John and the man looked over the flaming wreckage in awe of its scope. The bearded man shook dust and plastic from his beard before speaking.

  “Boone,” Boone said.

  “John,” John replied, breathing again.

  “Those your friends?” Boone asked, pointing toward a dark-haired man in a gray suit twenty yards away trying to help a blond-haired man from underneath a large tire.

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