Stop and Go
New Castle, Delaware
March 5, 2006
The world was white around me when I opened my eyes. I wasn't dead; the car glass had fogged up overnight from my breath. I felt lightheaded, probably from lack of fresh air due to sleeping with the windows closed. The spiderwebbed hole in the rear window had been plugged with a piece of cloth torn from my shirt, and had helped keep my body warm at the expense of my lungs. The night had been one of those rare nights from which I remembered... nothing. No dreams, no nightmares, no hallucinations. Just sleep. Those are the best nights. Maybe it was oxygen deprivation or sheer exhaustion, but it was sleep I had desperately needed.
Now that I was awake, it was time to face the uncomfortable reality of a headache, a full bladder and a nearly complete lack of provisions. The food supply was limited to a couple of slices of cold leftover pizza, and the water bottle was empty. Once again I cursed myself for lack of foresight. That gas station food mart had so much stuff and I bought so little! It was foolish not to have been prepared with at least an emergency water supply and some rations. Hungrily I wolfed down the stale pizza with nothing to wash it down. Human survival experts claim that a person can drink one's own urine in an emergency, but not even an animal wants to stoop that low.
Thus, I decided to remedy that problem by taking care of business. After taking care of said business I wandered as close to the river as I dare go without being seen. There was no way to get drinkable water from that. Perhaps there was a vending machine somewhere that sold bottled water. A highway rest stop seemed like a good option. The trick would be to find one that wasn't on a toll road. The sooner I found water, the better my parched throat would feel. Dehydration sucks.
I opened my car's trunk and pulled out the tool kit. Time to go to work on that gate. After the morning's freight train passed by, I drove the Subaru down the dirt road to the gate and parked, then set to work dismantling the hinges. When the hinges were in pieces, I lifted the entire gate and moved it aside enough to fit the car through. I then moved the car again to the railroad track side and reassembled the gate. There. Like nothing ever happened. I put the tools away, hopped back in the car and continued on my way. The bouncy dirt surface along the tracks made me glad my car had all-wheel-drive. I had to take it slow to prevent further suspension damage, but a little ways down the track I discovered a small cluster of industrial complexes and an actual paved road. Best of all, the road was deserted. I turned onto the road, which was lined with a residential neighborhood on one side and a large green space on the other which contained a war memorial planted with trees and several flag poles. Just behind the memorial was the turnpike.
I made a right turn and crossed the overpass above the highway. I was just about to take the on-ramp onto the turnpike when I spotted a familiar motel sign just on the other side. Remembering my good experience with Motel 6 back in California I decided to check this one out, not to stay there but rather because motels typically have vending machines. I parked around back and climbed out of my car. It was mid-morning on a Sunday. Hopefully people were sleeping in and the maids wouldn't be cleaning yet. The parking lot was fairly sparse, so it seemed unlikely that I would run into anyone. Stealthily I scampered up the stairs to the second floor and followed the signs marked "Ice". In my limited experience the ice maker room usually housed the vending machines as well.
Finding the room was easy; I just hoped it was unoccupied. I peeked cautiously around the corner, hearing a growling, clunking sound. The room was empty. The sound was just the ice machine cycling and the two vending machines for snacks and soda humming away monotonously. Jackpot. My hunger battled my brain for control of the food budget. I fed several dollar bills and quarters into the soda machine, buying bottles of water to rehydrate my body and act as a reserve stash in case of emergency. Then I purchased whatever snacks looked like the best combination of energy and nutrition. Hardly a winning diet, but perhaps enough to feed one fox for a day. I decided to take my haul and hustle out of there.
I tucked the waters and bags of food in what was left of my shirt and turned the corner, then my ears picked up voices. Down the hall a young boy said, "Daaaaad, I thought you said this place had a pool!"
"I did not, Jeremy," came the decidedly more adult voice of the father, "I said that where we're going they'll have a pool. This was just a stop along the way to New York."
The voices were coming closer. Small, rapid footsteps told me the child was running ahead of his parents. "Crap, I forgot one of the room keys," said the man. "Susan, make sure Jeremy doesn't get in trouble. I'll be right back."
If I hurried I might be able to get to the stairs before the parents saw me. I'd had about 50-50 odds with kids so far so maybe I'd be all right. I moved out into the hallway -- right into the path of the young son. The little blond kid stopped in his tracks and stared up at me, clutching a plastic soldier action figure in one hand and wearing swim goggles. "Shhhh...." I said, placing a finger in front of my nose like a furry Santa Claus. "Don't say anything." I rushed toward the stairs.
"Cool!" shouted the boy. "Mom, look what I found!"
I was already downstairs by the time the mother reached him. I could still hear their exchange when I reached my car. "Jeremy, I don't see anything."
"But Mom! I saw a big fox dude come out of that room there, it was awesome!"
Kids and their overactive imaginations.
I started the car and left the motel. The chilled spring water felt wonderful on my dry throat as I merged onto the turnpike. The folded map on the passenger seat told me to head for Baltimore, and that was exactly what I was going to do.
As it turns out, Delaware isn't a very large state. Less than fifteen miles of pleasant highway driving past small communities and wooded areas, and I came around a curve to find traffic slowing for another damn toll plaza. Four bucks for passenger cars. And for what? For the privilege of driving another fifteen miles to the next tollbooth? Seeing no chances to escape from the highway into the woods or onto a surface road, I grudgingly fell into line with the other drivers who queued in the half-dozen toll lanes like sheep being led to slaughter. I slid my seat rearward on its track to hide some of my face from the toll taker's view behind the car's door pillar, flipped the sun visor forward to disguise myself from the tollbooth's overhead cameras, and pulled out four of the rattiest-looking dollar bills from my pocket. When my turn came to pay, my window was already rolled down and I thrust the grungy bills into the bored-looking toll taker's hand and drove off without a word.
"Screw this noise," I muttered to myself upon leaving the toll plaza. Never again. There had to be a toll-free highway around somewhere! Shortly after crossing the state line into Maryland, at which point the turnpike became the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, I decided to exit at the first opportunity that arose. I took the Elkton Road exit ramp, then pulled over to consult the map. There was a small town of the same name, Elkton, that was only a tiny dot on the map. Just south of the squiggly line that was Interstate 95, the JFK Memorial Highway, I saw another squiggly line running nearly parallel to it. That was Route 40, the Pulaski Highway. Maybe that one was better.
While scanning the map I noticed that, had I simply exited the highway half a mile before the toll plaza, I could have just gone right around the damn thing via surface roads and hopped back on I-95 -- at the road I was on right now. No wonder why so many cars were exiting there. Better planning would have saved me half the price of a decent lunch. I continued on Elkton Road around the outskirts of the town of Elkton, and had myself a little chuckle at the amusingly named Blue Ball Road before ending up at the highway. My fuel gauge read below half a tank. I had calculated a driving range of roughly 160 miles as of two nights ago in Pennsylvania, and had traveled roughly seventy miles on this tank so far. The most I could expect was up to 200 miles, which with my lead foot would never happen. The map's legend showed that Washington was still over 100 miles away. The math didn't add up at all. Either I would have to drive very carefully to conserve fuel or find a gas station with a sympathetic (or apathetic) person to let me get more. It was painful, realizing that I was maybe three hours' drive from the place I banked all my hopes on, and might not even be able to reach it.
The Pulaski Highway was a four-lane stretch of road running east-west through a number of quiet towns and rural areas. I liked these small communities with low-density buildings and lots of space between houses. Wooded areas and fields were plentiful along the way, coated in a light dusting of leftover snow. Living in the city had never agreed with me, especially not being cooped up inside a building with no freedom to move around. I had come to the realization that I would probably never be accepted by humanity for who I was. It didn't matter, though. Freedom and privacy were worth more to me than being loved by the population.
My odometer dutifully racked up the miles, but I became concerned when I passed a sign announcing that I was approaching the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge. I remembered the last bridge I crossed was a toll span. What was it with this part of the country and toll roads? The bridge came into view, a long, narrow grey truss span with arches at both ends, built over water. A small lump of an island sat in the middle of the river. A short distance before the bridge was a toll plaza, but curiously the westbound traffic was diverted around the tollbooths. Evidently tolls were only being collected on traffic going the opposite way. Haha! Things were looking up. I breezed past the toll plaza and cruised across the bridge into the town of Havre de Grace.
It was a good thing, too, because I was running out of small-denomination dollar bills. Soon all that would be left was the $100 bill and I wanted to save that for an emergency. The highway continued on, snaking through the Maryland countryside for miles, passing marshland and more towns. I rationed my food and water, snacking lightly as I drove. Every few minutes I checked my fuel gauge, the little orange needle slowly moving closer to the E side with every mile. Traffic was light and moving steadily between the occasional traffic lights. Cautiously I bypassed a series of gas stations and truck stops, and did my best to time the lights in towns to get green lights or at least beat the yellow. It was arguably a slower drive than the fancy turnpike, but cheaper and more enjoyable.
Half an hour past the bridge I saw signs for Baltimore. The highway crossed under the turnpike again and I decided to avoid the toll road like the plague. Wooded countryside gave way to industrial facilities and the roadway became a regular surface street. I passed underneath a moldering, abandoned rail bridge and soon could see the skyline of the city on the horizon. The industrial buildings and self-storage complexes were replaced by fast food restaurants, repair shops and old brownstone row houses. At one intersection the highway suddenly split and I got confused. Having to make a quick decision, I continued on the wider of the two streets, Orleans Street, which put me in a strange land of endless blocks lined with century-old brick row houses that all looked nearly alike. I followed this road for a couple of miles into the city, where it rose above a mall parking lot and a highway before diverting again. This was making me nervous, since the map didn't show enough detail to make out most individual streets within the Baltimore city center. The last thing I wanted was to get hopelessly lost in Baltimore. Getting flustered, I stalled the car at a traffic light when I forgot to clutch while scanning for street signs and a couple of drivers honked their horns. Maybe I should have bought something with an automatic. I pulled over briefly to consult the map, scrutinizing what little it did show of the city's roads. It appeared that the highway to Washington, D.C. could be accessed from surface streets; all I needed to do was find the right one. And sure enough, the unlabeled red line on the map symbolizing the road I was on eventually intersected the unlabeled straight red line that connected to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. All I had to do was watch for the signs and hope I turned left at the correct street.
A small sign with an arrow pointing to the left indicated the route to Highway 295 south. That was good. The traffic light changed after what felt like eternity and I soon was on Greene Street heading south toward the parkway. Traffic bunched up heavily over the next several blocks. The drive took me past a pair of massive sports stadiums and then under another highway overpass with a spaghetti jumble of flyover ramps. Then the sprawl of the city opened up into a divided four-lane highway labeled as 295 South, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Signs pointed toward Washington but they recommended taking Interstate 95, the toll highway I was deliberately avoiding. I bypassed the exit.
Traffic speeds picked up as the high-rise buildings of metropolitan Baltimore receded in my rearview mirror and I forged onward into suburban Anne Arundel County. I set the car's cruise control at five miles per hour below the speed limit and sat back to take a drink of water.
When I set the plastic bottle back down in the Subaru's cupholder, I glanced up and noticed a car following me at a distance. It appeared at first to be an olive-colored Dodge Charger sedan and seemed harmless enough. This continued for several miles, though. Most other drivers passed me because I was driving slowly. Then the car moved over into the left lane and it became apparent that the brand-new Charger was painted two colors, olive and black, and had decals on the doors that gave it away. Maryland State Police. Oh hell. It was one of those new slicktop cruisers with no roof lights or front bull bar. The whip antenna, spotlight and small tinted red and blue lights hidden in the grille should have made it obvious. But the fact that the cruiser wasn't a Crown Victoria and wasn't a typical cop-car color and didn't have a lightbar had allowed it to get past my normally alert personal radar. You're slipping, Fox. Slipping badly.
The patrolman pulled up alongside my car, no doubt wondering why I was driving slower than all the other motorists who were doing at least ten over the limit. He didn't have anything on me. I hadn't committed one damn moving violation in the entire state of Maryland so far. I kept my head facing straight ahead, refusing to make eye contact with the cop. The Charger paced me for about a mile while the cop leaned over and looked at me. It was all I could do not to either break the stoic face and wave like a buffoon or just wait until the distracted officer drove his cruiser off a curve into a ditch. Neither happened.
No, instead the officer radioed it in. Brilliant deduction, Sherlock, you've found a weirdo on the roads. He dropped in behind me and flipped on his red and blue lights. What took you so long? For a second or two I thought about making a run for it. Where would I go? I had a beat-up car with a quarter tank of gas on a long, straight highway with no place to hide. It would never work. I pulled over. This was going to be fun.
I rolled down my window as the heavyset, bald officer wearing mirrored sunglasses and a black Stetson hat walked up to my driver door. "Is there a problem, Officer?"
The cop took a good long look at this fox dressed in an old brown leather jacket and a cowboy hat with water bottles and food wrappers scattered on the passenger seat, and a zigzag-patterned blanket folded up in the back seat. "Son, I'm trying to figure out just what the hell is going on here," he remarked. "License and registration please."
Oh boy. I dug my driver's license out of my left pocket while the officer watched. "California, eh? Well, Mr. Tayle, you must like that costume an awful lot to wear it to the DMV. I'm surprised they let you do that, but they're strange out there on the west coast. I guess you're one of those 'furry' people I heard about on TV. Now tell me why you're driving a car with Ohio plates and a bullet hole in the rear window."
"Sir," I said, "You wouldn't believe me if you tried."
The cop frowned. "Son, it's my job to see through bullshit stories. Try me."
I pulled the paperwork from the cash sale of the Subaru from the Chevy dealer in Ohio out of the glovebox and showed it to him. "I bought this car last month, and I'm one-hundred-percent honest with you in saying I haven't had a chance to register it yet because I've been helping a friend in a rural community for the last few weeks. The car was off the road during that time undergoing repairs. The tags are still good for a few more months, aren't they?"
The officer walked around to the rear of the car to check the registration tags. They were current. He said something into his radio about my license. "Somehow your license comes back as legit," he said, returning to my window. "Now I want to know who took a pot shot at you."
"I honestly don't know who it was, sir," I answered. "Someone got pissed and shot a hole through my window." So far my answers left out a lot of information, but were technically true. I could bluff my way out of this stop, but I was sunk if he saw the loaded, stolen pistol under my seat.
The cop grumbled a little under his breath and pulled out his ticket book. "I'm writing you a citation for the rear window glass. Get it fixed. This car would fail Maryland state inspection. I also want you to contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles and notify them of the title change. Sign here." He handed me a pen and I scrawled a deliberately messy signature. "And one more thing," he added, "I've seen all kinds of weird people in my years patrolling this road. People dressed as superheroes, naked people. I don't care what you do in your car as long as you're not presenting a danger to anyone else on the road. But wearing a full costume can hamper your movement or vision and cause an accident. I'd rather you took it off."
Oogh. "Sir," I said, "I appreciate your concern but what I'm wearing is a lot of trouble to take off and I really don't have anything on underneath. Unless you're into that kind of thing, I doubt you want to see me without my fur."
The cop waved me off, his face crinkled up in a mildly disgusted expression. "Just have a nice day and drive safely. Don't let me see you again."
I was only too happy to oblige that request.
The cop got back into his cruiser and roared off. I waited until he was about a quarter of a mile down the highway before I merged back into traffic and continued on my way. That was too close. Note to self: give Diana's DMV friend a proper thank-you later.
From that point on, it was difficult to enjoy the drive. The road snaked through unpopulated, forested areas and the sun had come out, but I found myself alternating beween looking out for cops and trying to find a gas station. I must have passed more than a dozen gas stations in Baltimore, but they were all too public. The fuel gauge hovered between one-eighth of a tank and empty. Most of the highway exits were corporate business parks, factories or residential neighborhoods.
Approaching the town of Greenbelt, I decided to stop pushing my luck. Through the leafless trees I could see a small Citgo service station just off the highway; the orange, blue and white colors of the awning over the pumps stood out against the dark branches. I exited and pulled into the station for fuel. It wasn't busy. Before I opened my door I counted my remaining money. The hundred-dollar bill was tucked safely in my back pocket, leaving less than twenty dollars in small bills. I could spare enough for about three gallons, enough to get my car to Washington, D.C. and hopefully do whatever else it needed to do there.
The "human in costume" story, however ridiculous, had worked with the highway patrolman. Perhaps it would work here. I got out of the car and walked into the mini mart when no other customers were around. The clerk was refilling the lottery ticket rack behind the counter with his back turned. I set some money down on the counter. "Eight dollars on pump two, please."
The clerk closed the plastic door of the lottery display and turned back toward me, then paused a second. "...All right, where's the hidden camera?" he said, giving me a strange look. "This has to be some kind of joke."
I wasn't expecting that. "Umm... oh, yeah, it's outside. See that van out there? But don't tell anyone. I need you to play along. Pump two, okay?"
"Uh yeah, sure," said the stunned clerk. "Will you want a receipt, sir?"
"Nah, I'm good," I answered, walking nonchalantly out the door and back to my car. That was easy. The pump turned on and I put in eight bucks' worth of regular unleaded. When the digital readout showed a total of $8.00, the machine clicked off and I replaced the nozzle. Another car was pulling in so I quickly hopped back in my Subaru and drove off, back toward the parkway.
The parkway soon passed underneath a highway overpass and soon took on a pleasant scenic appearance, with an artful colored stone block center divider and woods on both sides. Less than a mile down the road, the two highway directions split apart from each other with a wide median full of trees. It formed a corridor reminiscent of a nicely paved forest path that happened to have cars on it. I rolled down my window to take in the fresh air as I drove along. All too soon, though, the trees ended and the northbound lanes were visible again with just a grassy median between them. I passed underneath an arched stone bridge labeled as Good Luck Road. Yeah, I'd need it. The trees soon obscured my view of the oncoming lanes again, and continued to do so intermittently for miles. With more fuel in my tank, that was one concern off my conscience and I could relax and enjoy this stretch of road. Steady traffic flow gave me another chance to eat snacks and drink water without having to constantly use both handpaws for steering and shifting gears.
By the time I reached the Annapolis Road overpass, the trees and even the wide grass median were gone. It had been a nice five miles while it lasted. A brown freeway sign announced a junction up ahead. US Highway 50 west would take me to Washington. I didn't know at the time, but after the interchange between the parkway and US 50 I was officially in the District of Columbia. Soon my car was passing the sprawling brick building of the Washington Herald newspaper, with a nicely groomed, parklike property on the other side of the highway. A sign declared the fenced park as the National Arboretum, whatever that meant. I was glad to see anything that preserved plants and trees and provided a tranquil escape from city life.
I pressed onward into the city. By this time I had been on the road for three hours and wanted to rest. Besides, my mission entailed far more than just getting to Washington. My ultimate goal of having an audience with the president and pleading my case would take planning first. I exited the highway and searched for a safe place to relax. A row of two-story brownstone houses on a quiet side street might be the ticket. One of the houses had caught fire some time ago and burned out, damaging an adjoining home. The windows of the second house were boarded up, indicating that it was abandoned. I parked my car in front of the house and, when traffic was clear, began to unload my things. There was an alley behind the house, which thankfully had a rear entrance door. The wooden door had a glass insert in it with nine small panes forming a rectangle shape. The door was locked. I balled up my fist in the end of the leather jacket's sleeve and punched through one of the panes closest to the door knob, using the tough leather for protection and insulation from the breaking glass. Then I reached through the hole I had just created and clicked the deadbolt to the unlocked position. The door opened easily and the house wasn't alarmed.
I looked around inside the darkened house. The downstairs seemed intact, but dingy from smoke damage near the ceiling. The rooms were vacant, cleaned out of furniture when the owners moved away. I tried a light switch. No power. The kitchen faucet also ran dry. There was nothing in the kitchen cabinets. I walked up the stairs, which were creaky but solid. The damage was more extensive up here. I saw daylight through the roof, where the rafters were blackened and debris lay scattered on the singed carpet of the master bedroom floor. There was a queen size mattress laid up against one wall which appeared to have dirty water stains on it, but it was dry now. The walls had once been a cheerful goldenrod color with cream-colored vertical stripes, the wallpaper now burned off the walls and curling downward. I continued my walk through the house and saw a young child's room decorated with a hand-painted mural of colorful balloons and butterflies on a background of sky blue walls. Like many of the rooms in the house, the upper part of the walls were covered in soot. How tragic it must have been for this family to have had to evacuate their home, possibly in the middle of the night, and watch while it burned. They were lucky to have escaped with their lives and most of their possessions. Their next-door neighbors would have surely lost everything.
The dark house was depressing, but it was shelter. I placed my tool kit, my Amish blanket, my food supply, clothing, remaining money and my gun on the floor to take inventory. I also still had my file tucked safely in its manila envelope, and the pink cell phone from that lady in New Jersey. I dragged the old mattress downstairs into the living room, not wanting to get wet in case it rained or snowed tonight through the hole in the roof. It was anyone's guess how long I could live in this place without being seen. I locked the rear door's deadbolt and removed what was left of my shirt to cover the glass.
When this was done, I placed the quilt on the mattress and lay down to rest. Idly I flipped through the pages of the BioCon dossier, looking at the faces in the photographs. The face of Jack Killian Archer was one I would never forget. I would make him regret what he did to me.
Memories slowly returned, prompted by the pictures in the folder. I remembered things that had always been foggy before. Archer had been there sometimes, seemingly just another suit in a small group of scientists and visitors who came to check on our progress in the training program. But he wasn't just a suit. Archer had pushed the project from day one. Cardiff was the lead scientist who ran the project, but Archer must have funded it and Cardiff would have had to report to him. But why was Archer so interested in it?
I remembered that when Shep, Wolf and I were transferred to the other facility, we were never told where it was. All I knew back then was that it was a drier climate, closer to a military base where we were taken in the back of a truck for training exercises. Archer visited much less often, but he must have still had influence over what happened since he was responsible for killing the project. I glanced at the photo from 1978. He and Cardiff were there from the beginning, probably years before I was born. How I wished Farley could have given me the other canines' dossiers as well!
I remembered that I was given separate training later in the project, away from the others. Because I was a fox they decided to exploit and enhance my natural abilities in stealth and speed. I was going to be a sort of scout, smaller and less muscular than the wolf and dog, but quicker and more nimble. It was a test to see if different species could be tailored to different applications within the military structure. But they made a mistake. We were too smart. We thought too much like humans, sometimes second-guessed their commands. I vaguely remembered other animal soldiers like us, sort of a second crop that were younger and created more to Archer's liking. They grew up much faster, and followed orders with blind obedience and loyalty to their handlers. When BioCon security eliminated the test subjects, I wouldn't be surprised if the others were executed without a fight. One could only imagine what my friends' final moments were like.
I had learned from my last encounter with Cardiff that he saw me kind of as a son. We were probably all like sons to him, since his real son, Darren, died in that car crash. For the other scientists on the project, Schlossburg, Yoshimitsu and Moskvitch, it was strictly business. Their job was to make us into creatures that could be trained by military personnel. Cardiff was probably the one responsible for enhancing our brains with human-level intelligence and making us truly sentient. The downside, if you can call it that, was that we aged at the same rate as humans. I suppose for those things I owed him more than I previously realized. He was probably also the reason why we were kept around and given more training long after we had reached a suitable age for fighting. I couldn't believe myself. I was actually starting to respect Cardiff!
So it seemed that the real enemy in all this was indeed Archer. He was the creator and destroyer, a man who may have meant well in the beginning but allowed it to corrupt him. I had heard a saying once: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If I ever met the man, he would be sorry.
My thoughts slowly became foggy again as fatigue from the last few days set in. The text on the pages blurred in and out of focus in the dark room. Within minutes I was asleep.