The speedometer rolled over one-ten and the sirens grew closer. Boomer had lived the backwater colony’s roads as a teen, but, even if he appeared twenty, his braking foot felt anciently slow and Dad’s soggy gums were clearly those of an eighty-year-old. At least Sheriff Dickhammer still thought of the apparent youth as the same sticky-fingered hooligan.
Did the copper have a point though? Had he not stolen the old man he’d strapped into the roadster's passenger seat like an overweight baby? Was this not just another bout of irresponsibility, but this one likely to put him away for a real stint?
As the school he’d fought to avoid for the first ten years of his life slid by on the right, Boomer wondered if he’d ever actually left Masefield.
He fishtailed off fifth line and straightened the vehicle. This car, at least, he’d paid for.
The fingers, wrapped around the white leather steering wheel, looked strong and young and ready for a rough-life’s work. They did not seem like the hands he’d come to know.
To his right, Dad snorted. The last strands of his gray hair were holding their own against the wind, but his lips flapped wordlessly at the sight of the rushing concrete.
At least he wasn’t panicking and trying to bail, a nightmare Boomer had too-often considered.
The needle dragged at one-fifteen and he wondered if it was he, and not Pops, who'd gone senile. Was it easier to believe that one day he’d simply had a stroke, or that he’d traveled to dozens of worlds, that he’d seen sights the vids couldn’t imagine on any budget, that he’d made friends of such modified hue and texture that the local racists would’ve simply broken down weeping?
- then there was no room to worry. The convertible crested Mudraker Hill, and it was time to hit the music.
Thumbing an ancient cassette tape into the hungry mouth he'd had specially installed in the dash, Boomer shrugged. He might be about to kill the only family he had left, but he felt somehow that his father would’ve at least appreciated his madness.
At one-twenty John Fogarty began to howl the opening bars of The Midnight Special.
Boomer was laughing so hard as the car ran out of road that he almost didn't notice the woman standing beside LaChance.
* * *
Eight years earlier, Boomer had shared a cell with the man.
LaChance had the thin-limbed and shaggy-haired look shared by most of the second-generation vagrants Masefield's sheriff busted for hitchhiking by the overpass, but there was a complexity and beauty to his arm-length tattoos that had convinced Boomer they weren't jailhouse scribbles done to pass the time.
Their friendship had begun when he’d simply inquired, “so, why aren’t you supposed to be here?”
In reply, LaChance, who appeared to be carrying his head gently through a bout of alcoholic dehydration, gave his first smile of the morning and asked, "don't they call this the drunk tank for a reason?"
"In this palace of crapitude they just call it Morty's, but we're both lucky that Morty ain't actually here currently. It isn't fun to be locked in with him.”
"Mean drunk?" "Mean sober. Anyhow, I'm not interested in pushing. My pa used to say, 'when people hit a question with a question it means they really have no answers.'"
LaChance nodded. "Wise man. What's the offspring of such a bright fellow doing in a, uh, 'palace of crapitude' like this?”
Despite asking instead of answering, there was a warmth in the stranger’s voice that drew Boomer on - and, besides, if he was going to be a local legend someone would have to hear the story before he was pushed into the courthouse and buttoned up permanently.
"It's complicated,” he began. “Without boring you, my grandpa was so poor he accepted a one way ticket to this mud-ball in the first wave of volunteers. Things didn’t get any better from there, and he and Gran went up in an accidental shack fire when my dad was thirteen. Ma died when I was ten, and Pops raised me from there, which is to say I spent a lot of time being babysat by ancient shows from the old world because they were cheap. He did what he could, but fourteen hour mine shifts and a delinquent are hard to juggle. I got a record, and he got senile. Well - that could be anybody's story, I guess, but the nurses at the home are shit, Dad’s too far gone to realize how he’s being treated, and I've apparently lost any right to complain because I've punched my way into Morty's on too many weekends.
“Never mind paying for passage elsewhere, I can barely afford the goddamn ‘company provided’ doctors.
"I just - Jesus, I dunno. I had two or four PBRs in me and this idea that I'd just get him the hell out of town.
“That he didn't deserve to live and die in this trash pile.
"Didn't take much to distract Billy the barman, and, by the time he'd turned back to ask why I'd claimed his girl was in the corner making out with some ore poker, I was already through the door with the keys he'd scooped from George Samson. George’d been shipped to his trailer in a complimentary taxi, and, given his wobbling exit, I figured he wouldn't miss his little runaround till at least noon the next day.
"Lord only knows how I made it past the home's front desk without anyone moving downwind of my midnight thirst, but they sure as hell noticed when I went screaming past with the old man giggling his ass off in his wheelchair.
"I'd made it three country blocks when the first cherry lit behind me. Well, hell, maybe I was empty-belly drunk, and maybe I was thinking of the story Pops used to tell about taking a swing at Sheriff Smithers, three office-holders ago, when he’d made a pass at Ma.
“Whatever the case, I gunned it.
"For a sec there it reminded me of the old days, with me up on Dad’s knee and him risking both our lives by blasting over the gravel in his rusting out Ford.
"Thing is, I swear to Hendrix - which is as close as I ever got to religion - that, as we hit one-twenty coming down Mudraker, Pops said ‘Boomer?'”
At the mention of his own name, the storyteller had to pause and cough. He wasn’t going to ruin his myth by shedding a tear during the telling.
He took a moment to tap a tune on the bars at the front of their cell, then he cleared his throat and continued.
"I know that don't sound like much, but he rarely talks anymore, and - it was how he said it. Like, for a second, the speed had brought him back.
"Then bloody Dickhammer - I mean, Sheriff Hikedammer, gave us a rear-wheel nudge and it was all I could do to keep me and Pops alive. Who the hell does that when there’s a seventy-year-old stroke victim in the car?
"No doubt they'll want me to pay for the wreck instead of congratulating me on the skill it took to walk away without even putting the old man's hip out of place."
As if summoned by the conclusion of the tale, Hikedammer stepped into the short hall that ran the length of the holding cells.
"Oh yeah," he’d said, "you're a real hero for managing not to murder a senior citizen."
The rest of LaChance’s release had been handled with a series of rude hand signs and officious grunts.
* * *
Sixteen hours later, and a mere four previous to the southward transfer that would have earned Boomer a much securer bunk, the kidnapper and car thief was awoken by a whisper.
"We are leaving," announced the re-appeared LaChance.
Boomer, honestly believing himself dreaming, didn’t argue when the door swung wide, he simply followed the drifter down the hall, past the snoring form of Deputy Paquette, and into the night air.
LaChance steered him towards the barren rear bench of an awaiting Volkswagen Utility Bug, then thanked the driver - who looked suspiciously like Billy the Barman - for waiting.
It was an hour’s drive along muddy trails and maintenance access roads to reach the leaning cabin, but throaty smoke billowed black against the moon when they finally pulled to a stop.
Billy waited till they were clear of his turning radius, tossed them a wave from beneath the cab light’s bare bulb, then rambled back onto the dirt track.
Thirty seconds passed and all was silent.
A confused owl, also the descendant of a first waver, let out a slow who to the east, and Boomer became increasingly unsure of his situation. It was too cold to be a nightmare but nothing else seemed to be making any more sense.
“Ah, crap, you’re not a serial killer, are you?” he asked.
“No,” answered LaChance, “I’m - uh, sort of a magician. You might call me an escape artist. No, actually, that’s not right either: Escapes are simply a tool of my trade. I’m - I’m really a pilgrim.”
Boomer frowned. “That still sounds pretty serial killer-y to me.”
Laughing, the tattooed man waved him towards the door. “Everything sounds dangerous when you’re standing out in the cold at two in the morning. Let’s head to warmth and I’ll show you a magic trick.”
* * *
That first time, LaChance had told him he was demonstrating an optical illusion. He hadn’t said the word Batcave, but he’d implied there was something behind the fire, which was itself nothing but a mirage, and, to see it, Boomer needed to follow very closely, without letting go, or he’d impale himself on the rusting nails that littered the far side.
Somehow it was the thought of those red and angry nails that kept Boomer close as they stepped across space. The vague awareness of passing stars could be little more than another aspect of his dream, but, to the small town boy, the idea of a tetanus shot was too real.
There was no denying the reality, however, of the purple dirt he tripped onto as he exited.
Here the full heat of midday was in effect, the system’s single white star having escaped the shelter of the massive black sphere that hung low on the horizon.
Boomer’s tongue, used to operating free of input from his brain, murmured, “that’s no battle station, that’s a moon.