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Future Vend MAG
Rain’s coming down: glass bullets ripping up the sky. Twenty-two miles from home and I’ve got my thumb out, begging for help or trouble.
“Get in the car.” Some red van pulls up beside me. “Future Vend,” it says, scribbled on the side.
“Mother’s always told me not to hitch a ride with strangers,” I joke. The road’s too dark and he’s got his brights on. I swing open the door. It practically rusts off in my hand. I haul myself up into the seat, bag between my knees, and buckle up.
“What’s your name, brother?” he asks. He’s an older guy with a ring on his finger, glasses on his eyes and a button-down collar; a real respectable type. Mother would be proud.
“Jack,” I say, though it’s really Alex.
“Jack? Jack, nice to meet you, Jack.” His teeth crack together on the “c” and the “k,” so he sounds like a lobster snapping its claws. Weird, you know, with the sky all boiling black and thick. Glass bullets shatter on his windshield.
“Yeah, you too. Thanks for the ride.” There are cinders in this crystal ashtray on the dashboard. The whole van reeks of cancer sticks and Lombardi cheese. I ask him his name.
“Mitch,” he says, “Mitch,” though it’s just as much a lie as my name, you can tell. You can tell by the way he says the “m’s,” real slippery-like. We sit in silence for awhile, him staring at the road, me staring at my shoes. I’m thinking, Shoot, my mother’s gonna kill me because not only am I late, but I’m hitching, which is the one thing she hates most out of anything I do.
“Mind if I light up?” he asks and I shake my head no. It’s his car and my lungs - my fleabag, hitchhiking lungs - it’s the least he could ask. We sit. He smokes. I breathe. The radio’s busted. Lights flash by; some cop or ambulance, out in the sick weather, looking for deadbeats or heartbeats. As long as they’re not after Future Vend, I’m fine. I suck in a stuffy breath of borrowed nicotine and overripe cheese.
“Jack,” he says, “Jack,” clicking his teeth and puffing smoke through his nose. “Yep?” I say, and he says, “You’ve heard of the revolution, haven’t you, Jack?” His wristwatch glows blue between street lamps and the whole world’s fuzzy, rotten fuzzy with rain. I wish he’d stop using my name. Or my pseudonym, rather.
“No, sir, I’m not much for revolutions.” He leans into the wheel, maybe just trying to see in the storm. His glasses are crooked.
“Mitch, call me Mitch,” he tells me, doing that thing with the “m’s,” so I say, “Mitch,” and he seems fine with that for awhile, until he starts up with that revolution stuff again.
“You know, Jack, the revolution’s coming.” He waits like he wants me to respond. So I do.
“Really?” I say.
“Really,” he says. I’m getting kind of nervous. Maybe it’s just the smoke, but my stomach’s turning, and I’m thinking I ought to have just walked home and died of pneumonia. “You see the government, Jack? The government’s got this thing. The government’s trying to control our minds, Jack. Jack, Jack, Jack.” Clack, clack, clack. “You see those towers out there, brother? Do you see them?” Bright after bright streetlight glares by, blinding, but I see what he’s pointing to, one hand on the wheel and the other in the air.
“You mean the cell towers, sir?”
“Mitch, call me Mitch!”
“Yeah, yeah, no,” he says. “They aren’t really cell towers. You see, we don’t really need that many cell towers, you know? How many people even use cell phones anymore?” I think, Everyone? But I’m not saying it out loud because, you know, I don’t want to die or anything.
“I don’t know, sir, uh, Mitch.” He looks like he’s gonna start up again but then he’s real quiet for awhile, leaning into the steering wheel. I go back to staring at my shoes, thinking of home, thinking I can’t be too far away, but then he starts talking again and I tell my head to shut up.
“You see, they use those things to broadcast these, these messages.” He swings his spare hand off the wheel to signal the invisible messages, and for a moment, we spin freely through time and space, just another glass raindrop. “And they can tell you what to think and say and even how to act, you see?” He shakes his head. Cigarette ashes make like a firefly. “No, no, I bet you don’t, I bet they’ve got you, too. It’s all that stupid dental work, you see? Not that many kids actually need braces, it’s just their excuse ... and the fillings, yes, the fillings, that’s what they use for the best part of it. All for control, this, this, this obsession with power, don’t you see, Jack? I know you seen it!” Clack. I’m staring at my shoes, staring so hard I think my eyes might burn out, but that’s okay, as long as he doesn’t see me, as long as he doesn’t reach into my head with all that crap about government control and government buildings. But he’s waiting. I know he’s waiting; he’s waiting for my response, my one nod of approval. I’m asking myself, Why didn’t I just stick with the pneumonia? Mother’s going to kill me ... if Mitch doesn’t first. Lights pass by, more cars on the road. Street lamps spin. The sky weeps dismantled chandeliers.
“You know, Mitch ...” I start, and he’s all nodding eagerly, eyes off the road but foot on the gas pedal. “I-I really don’t know too much about this whole revolution business. I mean, I have a cell phone and I use it and I’m just fine ...” He looks back to the road, for once, shoulders all tense, eyes all glaring. Slick, slick, slick, broken mirror puddles line the side of the road. “Sorry,” I say, even though I’m not, but Mitch just nods, just nods like he’s done this all a thousand times before.
“It’s okay, Jack, I know. No one believes me, but it’s true. Just, just you wait ... you don’t believe me now, but, but I’m going to fix it. I’m going to fix what the government is doing and eventually all the towers will be gone and the kids in the basement with the tinfoil hats, they’re, they’re all going to be okay, and it’ll all go back to being okay.” He’s laughing now, this gross, crazy, nails-on-chalkboard, we’re-gonna-crash laughter. “And, and you know what the best part is, Jacky-boy?” I smile, anything to keep him calm. There’s a gas station on the side of the road. I don’t know where we are, but I’m getting out.
“Here’s my stop,” I say, and he starts to slow down. Thank you, thank you, I’m thinking to everyone and no one. At least he’s slowing down. I’d rather end up dead of pneumonia than in his aluminum box somewhere. No antennas for Alex, no sir, I’m thinking.
“You know the best part is that nobody’s gonna even know what happened.” He’s back staring at me again, crooked eyes, crooked glasses, crooked grin. “But you’ll know, Jack, you’ll know, because you know what?”
“What?” I say, still waving at the gas station ahead. I’m getting out, even if he doesn’t bother stopping the van.
“Because I’m gonna give you a signal, Jack. You just wait, you just wait because,” he winks, “this is where the rest of the story begins. You hear me, brother? This is where the rest of the story begins? Got that?” I smile. I give him a thumbs up, real nice-like. Gas station’s to the left. He pulls over. Thank you, Jesus, Buddha, Birmingham.
“Right, right, got it.” I wink back. He’s still smiling, kind of laughing, just enough so his shoulders shake.
“Real soon, too, any minute, I swear, just listen. Everything, every one of those cell towers is gonna let you know that somebody else is in control, not just the government, controlling what people’s thinking.” He taps his ring-wound finger to his temple. I toss a glance to the Fill ’Er Up sign outside. It’s glowing like the pearly gates.
“I’ve got the codes, Jack, you see, you see that’s how they do it, Jack, with these codes.” Clack. “But I’ve hacked it, brother, you bet, old Mitch here, he’s cracked the codes and now he’s setting everybody free. You want to be free, Jack?” No, I’m thinking, No, I just want to get out of this car. He’s staring, not blinking, smoking like a spit-fire dragon.
“Cool,” I say. “Cool.” He stops the car. “Good luck with that,” I say, real fast, before he can change his mind and take me off down the highway again. “Thanks for the ride.” I pull my bag up on my shoulders and slam the rusted door behind me. He waits for a second, still smiling out his window, before pulling away. I can’t say I’m not happy to see the old Future Vend go, with all its cheese and smoke and politics.
Three steps through the gas station door and there are pay phones lined up like patrolmen. I dig for a quarter, the smell of cancer sticks still clinging to my jacket. The phone rings twice. Pick up.
“Hey, Alex!” It’s nice to hear her voice, her sanity.
“Hey, Mom, I’m stuck out at this gas station, I was gonna make a surprise visit home but ...” I can feel her go all stiff and parental on the other end of the line.
“You weren’t hitching, were you?” Even her mother-ness is nice to hear.
“Yeah. Sorry, I know, I ...”
“Alex, I don’t want to hear it. I’ll be out to fetch you in a second, just, just, one second ... we’re halfway through this movie and I want to see the way it turns out. You know how it goes with these films. You’re halfway through before the story really begins.”
“What did you say?” The weather’s playing funny tricks on my temperament. Outside it’s still raining, the whole world heaving up on itself.
“You know... this is where the rest of the story begins?” I’m holding the phone, and my coat is dripping on the white linoleum. Drip, drip, drip; clack, clack, clack, what’s your name, brother? She’s talking then, and I’m talking, giving directions, but I’m not hearing any of it, nobody’s hearing any of it, but one person’s hearing all of it; hearing it, maybe. Maybe Mitch. Maybe Mitch with his slippery “m’s” and crooked glasses, maybe Mitch is in control of the universe.
I step outside to wait for my mother. The weather’s cold and the sky is dropping glass bullets, but that’s okay because the whole world is made up of the pieces of shattered glass bullets. Everybody’s just a lot of rain and a little bit of lightning. But that’s okay because there’s not much I can do about it anyway.
So I just sit, and I soak, and I wait.