March 4, 2006
Crossing the state line helped calm my nerves, but it didn't completely alleviate my stress. I still found myself checking my mirrors obsessively and watching for police cars as I drove down the highway away from Pennsylvania. Why did all the states and departments have to have so many different police liveries? Unmarked cruisers and the new "slicktop" patrol cars without roof lights only made my travels more difficult. And to top it all off, my fuel range was only about 150 miles with the twenty bucks' worth I put in it back in Pennsylvania. There was no telling whether I would run out of gas before I reached my destination, Washington, D.C. Where the hell was Camden, anyway? New Jersey was on the eastern seaboard. If I headed any further east, for all I knew, I might drive off a dock into the ocean. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Archer?
I turned south. The North-South Freeway offered a little peace of mind. Between freaking out over every Crown Victoria I saw on the road, my brain racked itself trying to remember geography. Washington, D.C. was located between Maryland and Virginia, right? If I was in New Jersey, that was way off. What was between New Jersey and Maryland? As if to answer my question, the highway passed beneath a road sign with directions to Delaware. Delaware it was, then.
I settled in my seat uncomfortably, the adrenaline slowly wearing off from the foot chase and allowing the full extent of my pain to be felt. A dull twinge of pain ran up my left leg every time I clutched to change gear. My tailbone felt like it was bruised from the rough landing. I took my handpaw off the steering wheel to flip on my blinker, only to find the plastic wheel rim shiny with crimson blood where I had gripped it. My body was protesting all over. And my stomach was hungry.
Thus far today, going out in public hadn't worked well. A more subtle, planned approach was needed. First order of business, even more important than food or rest or a bathroom, I needed to know where I was. I exited the freeway and drove around until I ran across a travel agency office in a strip mall. The shopping outlet had a long driveway that circled around behind the stores for deliveries and garbage pickups. The garbage was what I counted on. Behind the travel agency was a beat-up white Dumpster with some waste management company's name on the side. Travel agencies had maps. One would figure that sometimes maps go out of date and have to be thrown away. I parked my car beside the giant trash bin and got out. The Dumpster smelled awful. Evidently it was shared with a small restaurant next door and the pungent odor of rotting food scraps assailed my senses.
With a disgusted sigh I climbed up over the side of the steel bin and dropped down onto the driest surface I could find, a pile of recently discarded, flattened cardboard boxes. Everything else was wet from winter weather. There was evidence of agency refuse, mainly shredded papers and dog-eared tourist attraction flyers. Under a pile of noodles, broken shards of an old dinner plate and a brochure for Caribbean cruises, I unearthed a road map. It was a 2003 issued map of the Northeast from New England down to North Carolina. The Washington, D.C. area had its own zoomed-in page. The map was sodden with moisture and stained with food sauce, but serviceable for my needs. Now to get the hell out of this oversized trash can before my injured handpaw contracted an infection and fell off. The good news was I had my map, and the rotting garbage cured me of my appetite.
Where could I wash up? The bleeding still hadn't stopped and I wasn't sure I was ready to sacrifice my clothing yet as a bandage. I glanced around. Down on the far end of the strip mall was a construction site where a new store was being built. Within the fenced site was a familiar bluish-green plastic hut I recognized as a portable toilet. The site was devoid of workers today. If I was sneaky, maybe I could find some soap in there.
I drove the Subaru down behind the row of stores and parked as close to the chain-link fence as possible. I shut the car off, climbed out, and then climbed on top of the roof and used it as a platform to hoist myself over the fence. The less stress on my bleeding hand, the better. I dropped to the ground with another twinge shooting up my legs. No one seemed to be watching me, so I hustled over to the plastic outhouse. Thankfully there was no padlock on the door. I'd hate to be arrested for breaking and entering on a porta-john. The door swung open and a new set of strong odors wafted out. Ugh. I could almost feel bile rising in my throat as I walked inside and closed the door. At least it had hand sanitizer. I pressed the dispenser lever and some clear sanitizer gel squirted out into my palm. It stung like a motherlover on my open cut! Grimacing, I washed the wound. The roll of toilet paper wouldn't do as a bandage, though. Looks like the end of the road for this shirt. Shame, too, it finally got washed just a couple of days ago. I unzipped my leather jacket, looked down at the clean-ish white T-shirt, and ripped the bottom inch or two off all the way around the hem. Satisfied that the wound was as clean as it was going to get, I bandaged it up in the cotton cloth. And since I was already in the outhouse, I don't need to tell you what I did next.
With that business settled, I was ready to continue on my way. I moved the car to a deserted corner of the parking lot to take a good look at the map and get my bearings. It looked as though the only way to get to Washington, D.C. from here without backtracking was to take a jog west into Delaware and then follow the highway through Maryland to the capital.
Part of me wanted to get in contact with Diana before I reached D.C., and that part was very insistent. There were a few ways to do that, of course. One, find a pay phone and make the conversation very short and vague. Two, get arrested for a minor offense and use my one phone call to contact her. Three, borrow or buy a cell phone. All were risky, though the third option sounded the most promising -- provided I talked to the right person about the phone. I started the car and drove it closer to some of the retail stores that were open.
Soon after, the doors of a clothing shop opened and out came a woman carrying two shopping bags and a large purse. She stopped about twenty feet from a black Mercedes SUV and began fishing in the purse for a cell phone that was playing a custom ringtone of a popular rock song I'd heard many times before in the car. She had to set down her bags to answer the call. "Hey, can I call you back?" she said into the phone, hanging up seconds later.
I opened my car door and stood up, waving to her. "Excuse me, ma'am, may I borrow your phone for a moment?"
The woman glanced over and visibly stiffened up. I could see her start to inhale sharply in preparation to scream. "No, no, please, ma'am!" I pleaded, putting my handpaws up to show I meant her no harm. "Don't scream, please. I just want to borrow your phone-"
"Take it, just don't kill me!" she cried shrilly, tossing the phone at me and grabbing for her things. In her panic to grab the two shopping bags, the purse slipped off her shoulder, the main flap popping open when it hit the ground. Make-up paraphernalia and other feminine items spilled out, rolling all over the asphalt. The woman ran with a clicking sound in her high heels to the Mercedes, grabbing frantically at the door handle. The door didn't budge; it remained locked. Her car keys were on the ground near me. "Oh God, oh God! Help!" she screamed.
"Ma'am, I told you I mean you no harm," I said gently, though secretly I wanted to make her shut up. I picked up the car keys. "Take the car too!" the panicked woman yelled.
"No, I don't want your car," I replied, bending down to collect the things from the purse. "All I want is to use your phone for a few minutes. I'll even pay for it if you want." I offered the keys and purse to her as a goodwill gesture.
"Oh, you'll pay all right," she hissed, snatching the keys and purse from my paws and starting her car. She rammed the shifter into gear and bounced over the concrete parking stop with a screech of tires, roaring away.
I looked down at the phone in my bandaged palm. It was an almost new Motorola Razr with a screen background of three kittens in a basket. I already had paid for this, I thought to myself. Paid for my situation many times over. The black Mercedes was gone now. It wasn't likely to return and the woman no longer had her cell phone to call the police. Perhaps I could find the woman's name in her phone and reimburse her later for whatever long distance call charges I incurred.
I returned to my car and moved it to an apartment complex with carports for its residents. That way if they were tracking me with satellites like they do in the movies, it would be harder to determine my location while placing the call. I dialed Diana's number and prayed it wouldn't get her in trouble. One ring. Two rings. Three. Come on, pick up!
"H-hello? Who is this?" came the voice on the other end. That beautiful voice. It sounded shaky and afraid, but it was Diana.
How badly I wanted to call out her name and tell her I loved her. My tail twitched and ears perked just from hearing her voice again for the first time in a month. "It's me," I said, careful not to use names. "I'm back east."
A pause. Didn't she recognize my voice? Maybe she was choosing her words carefully in case it was a trap. "Prove to me who you are," Diana said.
I sighed heavily. She wanted to hear something only she and I would know. "Our first kiss. Las Vegas. Two months ago. And the license fee on my El Camino was $88 and you paid it back in October to keep the tags current because I didn't know how the system worked. And I love you. I wish I could see you again. A few days, max. Soon this will all be over. If I survive, I'll come back to you."
I heard sniffling on the other end. "I miss you... where are you? Can I come out there?"
"No," I said. "It's still too dangerous. I have to do this on my own. I'll contact you again later if I can."
Time was running out on the call. Any operative worth his salt, with the right equipment, could have traced it by now. I knew Diana and I both wanted to catch up on events, check up on our respective well-being and really just hear each other's voices, but that would have to wait. "I'm sorry, I must go now," I said. "Goodbye."
"I love you," was her only reply.
I hung up. There was no telling how long it would be until the phone company disconnected the service and I'd be left with little more than a tiny plastic brick. Or worse yet, the phone's owner could have gotten a description of my car, even a license plate number. While I was technically the legal owner, it wasn't registered in my name yet and wouldn't be in any database. Police might stop me just for that.
My stomach growled like crazy now. Seems that getting away from the bad smells rekindled my appetite. I had an idea. Sometimes restaurants send out coupons in the mail. This apartment complex had wall-mounted mailboxes next to the units' doors. One was particularly full with junk mail, like the occupants were out of town. Seeing no one around, I snuck over to it and rifled through the mail. Interspersed among a couple of weekly supermarket circulars was a coupon sheet for a local pizzeria. I now had a phone, the restaurant's phone number and a coupon.
I ordered a pizza.
I felt a little safer with the anonymity of just my voice being relayed to the employee on the other end, mainly because the call was so generic and no names were used. Still, I attempted to disguise my voice a little. I ordered a large meat lover's pizza and asked for it to be delivered to the vacant apartment and left on the step outside the door. I placed the money plus a tip for the delivery driver under the welcome mat, then sat in my car to wait.
Less than half an hour later, a beat-up Hyundai rolled up. A kid hopped out and jogged up to the doorstep with the pizza inside an insulated carrying bag. He slid the pizza box out and placed it on the welcome mat, then pocketed the money and left. After the rattly old compact turned the corner I retrieved the pizza. Dinner that evening was heavenly.
After those two calls I decided it was best to shut the phone off and remove the battery. I left the apartment complex and returned to the highway heading southwest on 295. The pain in my body had subsided to a dull ache all over, and as evening fell the weather became colder outside. I clicked on the car's headlights and followed the signs toward Delaware.
Shortly after merging from an interchange ramp I crossed under a pair of highway signs reading "West 40 Delaware Memorial Bridge" and "49 East - Pennville / Salem Next Right". What bothered me was that under the Pennville/Salem sign was another yellow sign reading "Last Exit Before Toll". Not again! I thought this was a freeway! I glanced down at the wrinkled map on the passenger seat. Highway 40 was the New Jersey Turnpike and would become the Delaware Turnpike on the other side of the bridge.
I continued on, hoping that the inevitable toll plaza wouldn't appear for miles. Traffic rolled up a long, straight incline as the highway arched into a pair of grey-green suspension bridges each four lanes wide crossing the muddy green waters of the Delaware River. My car crested the bridge's high point and a massive toll plaza came into view. Up ahead the highway widened temporarily into a dozen lanes all routed into the tollbooths like a reverse funnel. I'd already been exposed to too many tollbooth cameras and had no intention of paying again. But what to do?
The answer soon came to me when the guard rail ended briefly up ahead on both sides of the highway. It looked as though there was some kind of ramp that led downhill. Faking mechanical troubles, I pushed the triangular red button on top of the dashboard between the air vents which engaged the four-way emergency flashers. I then pulled off the highway on the right side to have a look at the ramp. If it didn't lead anywhere useful I'd have to pull back out onto the highway. I decided to check it out and steered the car down the narrow paved ramp, which curved back around underneath the elevated highway and ended at a small packed-gravel storage lot for trucks. The lot was surrounded by a chain-link fence and contained a single long white steel storage building, some smaller sheds and a few parked flatbed trucks. No fewer than four paved ramps led back to the turnpike, two in each direction. One of those ramps branched off into a dirt road which ran between the two stretches of highway a short distance downhill to some railroad tracks. There was a closed gate at the bottom of the dirt road.
Perhaps the question to consider now was whether to continue on, or rest. The storage lot was quiet and below the sight line of the motorists driving on the highway above. It might be possible to park the car beneath the highway overpass itself and get some sleep. Parking too close to the railroad tracks could arouse suspicion. Instead, I elected to park beneath the eastbound highway lanes next to the storage sheds.
I decided to take a little walk to stretch my legs before going to sleep. It appeared that the place was truly empty, and much of it was in shadow. I locked the car and walked underneath the overpass, down the grassy incline to the railroad tracks. In the distance a train horn sounded; a white light twinkled some ways down the track. Time to find cover. I ducked behind a highway support pillar as the distant rumble became a roar. It reminded me of the near miss with Charlotte Beauregarde's Pontiac back in Ohio. The locomotive came closer, blowing its horn repeatedly to warn any drivers at the crossing gates I heard dinging about a quarter mile from my position. When it passed me I saw it was actually two massive diesel locomotives pulling a long line of tank cars, their heavy steel wheels making a rhythmic click-clack-click-clack as they rolled by. It took a few minutes for the freight train to pass by. Then I was once again alone with only the dull roar of traffic overhead and the sound of chirping insects in the underbrush. The only light came from a tall highway lamppost installed beside the dirt road between the two highway overpasses, and a fluorescent light illuminating one end of the larger storage building in the fenced lot.
I strayed from the shadows to check on the gate at the bottom of the dirt road. It was locked. Perhaps I could pick the lock with some of the tools in my trunk. I didn't really want to ram through it with my car since the poor thing didn't deserve more damage than it had already suffered. So I returned to the car to find some tools. It was only a basic padlock, so maybe a hammer and a screwdriver would break it.
Then I got a brilliant idea. Why not remove the gate from its hinges, move it aside, and replace it after driving through? It wouldn't cause any damage at all. But that could wait for tomorrow morning. I opened the door and plopped down into the driver seat. I reclined the seat all the way back as flat as it would go, then spread the Amish quilt over my body and tried to make myself comfortable. What a day. Nothing but sleeping, panicking, scaring people and running. Just like so many of the other days. I fully expected to be tortured by nightmares all night long, but there was a small hope in the back of my mind that maybe soon they would stop. Things had to be set right first.