THE LAST ITALIAN TUNE-UP, PART 1 “SEE JANE…”

(THE FOLLOWING IS PART ONE OF THE ORIGINAL, SERIALIZED VERSION OF “THE LAST ITALIAN TUNE-UP”. BUT AS WE ARE NOW NOVELIZING THE STORY, WE ARE TREATING THIS, AND THE TWO SUBSEQUENT SHORTS THAT WE’D RELEASED, AS A SORT OF “ROUGH DRAFT” FOR EARLY CHAPTERS OF THE NOVEL. WE ARE ALSO THEREFORE RELEASING THESE SHORTS NOW TO READ FOR FREE, UNTIL THE FULL NOVEL VERSION IS COMPLETED. ENJOY!)

 

“Day 107”

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jane Matheson stepped from the front door of Atlas House at exactly seven A.M.. The world that greeted her stood perfectly silent.

As usual.

But she listened to it anyway, for a few more seconds, just in case… Because sooner or later, she knew, something would come.

But today… no, she still heard nothing. So, she quietly made her way down the front porch steps toward the house’s long, semi-circular “driveway”.

There, she clipped a small Garmin GPS to her waist, pressed the “POWER” button and hoped for the best. The device chimed.

SEARCHING…

That done, she started her stretches.

Walking Lunge: ten of them…

Kneeling Hip Flexor: five… aaand switch…

Side Stretches: two breaths… and switch…

Dynamic Pigeon Pose-

(That’s such a stupid name.)

…DYNAMIC. PIGEON. POSE… two… and switch… and two…

Hip Flexor Stre-

BEEP-BEEP-BEEP

It was the Garmin. She looked down at it.

LOST SATELLITE RECEPTION

She sighed. She’d been thinking that the GPS was finally starting to fail, and she decided on that morning that she’d been right. Over the past nine days the device had begun finding fewer and fewer satellites. At least until three days ago, when it hadn’t found any. And every day since, she’d gotten only the three flat beeps.

At first she’d kept taking it along, hoping it might start working again. But that day she put it down on the porch; there was no sense in carrying the extra weight, and really, the GPS hadn’t done anything that she couldn’t already do with her own brain and the AAA road map she kept in her pack. She’d been lucky to have had it at all; the device had made her early days of searching all the smaller back roads so much easier, but-

It was running on borrowed time anyway, and I knew it, she reminded herself.

(Just like you?)

Jane sighed to herself. The sigh was one of disappointment, even though she knew she had no valid reason for being disappointed. No logical reason.

But in the same way that she listened for those few extra seconds every morning, hoping to hear something, even though she mostly expected she wouldn’t, she also stepped out each morning with fresh hope that the voice wouldn’t come. Even though-

(You still keep thinking that maybe one of these days I’ll just go away? As if it’s that simple? Oh Sweetness- yes, you get up every morning and listen, but do you ever really look around? Haven’t you seen it, yet? We are completely, totally-)

“Are we already doing this? So early in the day?”

Her own voice speaking out loud to no one at all had long since ceased to shock her. It had at first, because it had been her first warning that something might be going very wrong with her, but it didn’t bother her anymore.

Because now she understood; there wasn’t anything wrong with her, not per se– she just had a lot of problems. Problems that probably only a few people in human history had ever had to deal with before. And talking to herself about those problems was just the simplest way to deal with them effectively.

Of course, she hadn’t ever expected her problems to start talking back to her, but-

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not listening to you anymore. That thing was running on borrowed time, and I knew it, because it pounded through batteries- even with the Baud rate set to its absolute minimum, the thing still ate batteries. If it hadn’t been for Jack’s paranoid insistence on having a lot of them in the house, it already would’ve-”

(But how are your batteries, Sweetness? You’ve also been pounding through-)

“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! SHUT UP! Jesus, you know, you used to be so helpful, but now… now you’re just like…” She pointed at the GPS. “-That! You’re worse, really, because at least the GPS has an excuse; something killed it. But you? Nothing’s wrong with you. Not really. The only thing wrong with you is that you’re a suicidal bitch.”

(No, I am NOT useless, and I am not suicidal; I’m just being logical. The way you wanted me to be. The same as I’ve always-)

At least she still had her watch, and all that needed in order to work was the sun-

(Fine, go ahead and tune me out. I know where you live. Down in your hole…)

-or movement? She didn’t really know. It had been a present from Jack, and all he’d told her about it at the time was that she’d never need to wind it, because, as the little letters on its face proclaimed, and as Jack had proclaimed to her

“It’s an Eco-Drive!”

Jack had said the words with a kind of excited grandiosity, as if they’d meant something magical. Which they may as well have, for all she knew, because-

(“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”, “Hazards of Prophecy”, Nineteen Seventy-Three.)

“I know; I read it.”

(Oh, really? I thought I’d read that one. Although sometimes… you do cheat. Copycat.)

“Whatever. They’re still my eyes, and-”

(For now.)

In any case, whatever it was that good ‘ol, semi-magical “Eco-Drive” ran on: sun, motion, magic, fucking happy-thoughts… hopefully it would keep running.

(Yeah, hopefully. Right?)

She didn’t know how she’d get along without knowing the time; it was one of the few things she had left, and her watch was one of only two devices (that she knew of, anyway) still keeping track of it. The generators had finally run out of fuel nineteen days ago. All four of the clocks on Level 2 had stopped at 3:02, 4:02, 12:02 and 10:02, respectively. And since the other four on Level 1 were already long-dead…

Have to be extra careful about winding the grandfather clock from now on.

That only needed to be wound once a week; gravity did the rest from there. But, she also knew… that although she usually wound it every day, carefully pulling the long brass chains that hoisted the drive weights, if she forgot to wind it for too many days, or couldn’t get back to Atlas House for some reason, or got hurt- just one time…

Speaking of time… She looked at her wrist. 7:02.

(You’re running late! For what? Who knows! But you are…)

She gave Atlas House a final look, then set out down the driveway. From there she ran past the blue and white Cessna, across the end of the runway and down the empty access road.

Again.

***

 

 

“Unsprung Weight”

Two minutes, and a quarter of a mile later, she reached the main road. She checked her pulse…

One-seventy. Wow, that’s excellent.

In fact, that was the lowest she’d ever seen.

The weather is definitely helping.

It had been nice the last few mornings. The air felt cool, the way you’d expect a late summer morning to feel, and the humidity seemed to be decreasing. She liked it.

The morning’s only blemish was a low-hanging fog that cut visibility to less than an eighth of a mile. That she didn’t like, because it blocked her view of the sky and the horizon. The first mile of the main road twisted through the woods too, compounding the fog’s effect.

Although really, what did it matter? If anything were to come sliding along the sky from that horizon, she wouldn’t be able to outrun it. Not even now, after all this time; she’d been training for endurance, not speed.

She ran on. Twisting road and trees emerged from the fog one stride at a time.

Her body was a tightly wrapped package that ran quiet and smooth, disturbing nothing as she passed. What little she wore was made of Spandex, and the soft soles of her sneakers absorbed the sound of each footfall. Even her hair was coiled in a hard knot behind her head, and she kept what little weight she carried strapped close to her belly in a zippered pack, so that neither would bounce.

Anything that could bounce was called “unsprung weight”. She’d learned the term ten weeks ago while leafing through one of her husband’s old car-magazines. Apparently unsprung weight had once been the enemy of the world’s faster cars, because it stole energy that was supposed to propel them forward and then pissed it away in miscellaneous other directions.

As she’d read the article, her mind began to apply what she learned to her running. Unsprung weight became her enemy too.

But fighting that enemy, it turned out, would require sacrifice.

At the time, she’d been running with her son’s backpack strapped to her shoulders. She’d thought the pack a good idea, even though it did flop a bit, and so she’d been reluctant to give it up. She also had to admit: she’d been taking it with her because it was her son’s, and had of course been reluctant to leave it behind for the same reason.

Still, one day she’d tried going without it, and had been unable to deny the improvement in her time.

That little discovery had taught her several things: about waste, about unnecessary attachment to objects, about emotion. She’d realized that they were all a kind of unsprung weight; all of them wasted energy that she knew she needed to preserve. If she wanted to reach her goal.

And nothing, she’d concluded, could be allowed to prevent that. The goal was everything.

So now her son’s backpack hung in his closet back at Atlas House, and what little she’d chosen to keep taking with her was kept so snug that it felt like a part of her own body. While her memories: of her son, of her husband, of her daughter, all stayed back at the house as well.

Leaving them behind lightened her in the same way that leaving the pack had. Oh, she’d been sad at first- until she’d also realized her sadness for the weight that it was. Then, even her sadness got left behind.

Now she focused only on running.

She’d been at it for just a hundred and seven days, but her progress pleased her. Right along with the weight of her memories, she’d also shed pound after excess pound from her frame, and she still grew leaner every day. It had gotten to the point that the body she now saw in the mirror hardly resembled anything she’d ever known- even in her high school years. As the saying went, she used to be a wad of cookie dough, but now she was carved out of wood.

No, that was from a movie. Oh, what the Hell movie was that from?

(Don’t ask me…)

“I didn’t.”

She couldn’t recall and soon stopped trying. Movies too were a thing of the past. But no loss; they’d been a time waster anyway.

And time, she had come to realize, was much better spent like this anyway; running in quiet solitude, without distraction.

It still amazed her to recall how difficult it had been in the beginning, closing her mind to all but the cadence of her footfalls and the contemplation of a single thought. Now though, now it felt like second nature. Now it felt comforting. Her mind could range in tight but idle circles around her head while her running body got, as her husband had called it, the “Italian Tune-up”.

He’d loved that expression, although his version of the concept hadn’t exactly been the same as hers. His version had been to run the shit out of his old Chevelle. It kept the valves clean, he’d once told her.

Which was bullshit, of course. If anything, maybe those little hot-rodding sessions had kept his valves clean, but they’d mostly just been an excuse to go out once in a while and drive like the nineteen-year-old boy he had been when they’d met. Hadn’t the runway been one of Atlas’ key selling-points? At least for Jack. Because he’d realized it would double nicely as an impromptu dragstrip. And how many of his buddies could say they had one of those? Never mind the rest of Atlas House’s unique… characteristics.

Still, the basic concept behind both exercises was the same: occasionally running something reasonably hard somehow kept it healthier than just letting it always sit at rest. And if said exercise happened to be enjoyable? So much the better.

God, if only she knew where that Chevelle was now.

She wondered, for maybe the thousandth time, if it was still healthy. It probably wasn’t though. She’d come to accept that idea as fact. One day, she knew, she’d find it somewhere, smashed up and dead from that one, last tune-up that hadn’t gone as planned.

Or maybe she’d just find it sitting there on the side of the road, having long ago coasted, empty, to a stop. She just didn’t know. Maybe she’d even find her husband and the kids with it.

She doubted that though.

And really, she hoped she wouldn’t. That would be too much. Seeing them…

God damn Jack; the kids always loved to go out on those rides. So much so, that she sometimes felt like he’d stolen them with that car. Because in a way, he had.

Or had he saved them? After all, she’d barely managed to save herself, and no matter how many times she re-played Day One’s events in her mind, she could never envision a scenario in which they all managed to make it together. Things had just been too close. And too… frankly, accidental. No, only one of them- maybe two, would have made it.

Not her, certainly; she felt sure that she would have sacrificed herself. But which of her children would she have chosen? Which would have lived (maybe)? Which would have…

So maybe they’d fared better with their father. Maybe they’d all somehow been able to-

To what? She just didn’t know.

All she did know was that one day Jack and the kids went out for one of his “tune-ups”.

But then the world changed, and they never came home.

***

 

 

“Time, Direction and Distance”

Fewer and fewer trees emerged from the fog. She was getting clear of the woods.

Also falling behind her now was the cluster of three houses that sat on the corner at the end of the access road. The Harmon place was really starting to fall apart, she’d seen. When she’d run past it a few minutes earlier, she’d noticed that overnight, one of the gutters on the sharply angled, brown and white Tudor house had somehow come loose, and was now hanging askew. Which gave the already severe-looking house a sort of angry, I was a nice, middle class home- this shit shouldn’t be happening to me, sort of look.

How long, she wondered idly, would it take for the entire thing to go? Not in her lifetime, that was for sure. All it probably would do is grow more and more decrepit. Along with all of the other things she had neither the ability nor the desire to maintain. She thought briefly of burning the house down instead, just to get the process over with. To save her the daily depression of watching it rot slowly.

(There! That’s the spirit!)

“And I suppose you’ll want me to hang out inside while it goes?” She asked the question between carefully paced breaths. “Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?”

But her rebuke seemed to go unanswered. Unless she chose to consider the very conspicuous silence that had followed it to be an answer.

She supposed that the non-response had been meant as some petty form of retaliation for her sarcasm. But-

“Whatever…”

-petty was all the non-response was, and all it could be. Because as both she and the voice (which wanted a name she knew, a name like Kandy or Krissy or some other free-wheeling, mischievous-sounding moniker, but which she refused to give to it, because to do so would be the last step toward acknowledging it), silence didn’t bother her anymore. She’d gotten used to it. Much the same as she’d gotten used to hearing herself talk to no one at all. Not as quickly as she would have liked, but she had.

(Bitch…)

“Oh yeah, good one…”

She crested the top of a gentle hill. There the road flattened out and stretched for a quarter mile towards an intersection. And from that point, she well knew, the road would break in three directions; all heading out across fields that had once been intended for corn, but had since gone over to weeds.

Most days she turned left at that intersection. And today would be one of those days. That way would take her north on a loop back to the house. She would do that, then do it again, and again, making the left at that intersection two more times. In total she’d cover nine-point-nine miles today. Then, tomorrow she would strength train and do only one loop. After that, she would rest and take care of Atlas. What there still was of it, at least.

The following day though, she would go right. And that (hopefully) would be one of her long runs, probably about 17 miles, and her longest yet.

That way went south, so her long runs had to go that way too.

Because that was the way they had gone-

That was the direction… it had gone.

On that horrible day.

***


 

“Pain in Knowing”

STOP

Which she did.

But not because the big, red sign told her to. Hell, she could run back and forth through the intersection all day long if she wanted, flipping the old middle-finger salute at the sign every time just for good measure. Nothing would happen. The sign’s days of telling people what to do were over. A hundred and seven days over.

No, she’d stopped for something else.

Well, hadn’t really stopped; it wasn’t good to just stop in the middle of a run, so she’d actually begun jogging in place.

But as she did, she looked down at the pavement… and saw the same things she’d seen almost a hundred times before. The things she’d really (sort of) stopped for.

There were two of them: one off to her left, the other to her right. Both of them still as dark black on the grey asphalt as they’d been when she’d first seen them. Even after the passage of months.

They started before the STOP sign and broke right, scrawling down the road for what had to be fifty feet, until they finally trailed off. Then, about six inches further along, a second set picked up right where the first set left off. And that set ran for another twenty feet. Shorter than the first, but still just as black.

Tire marks.

Most people could have easily guessed at what had caused the first set: probably some hot-rodding asshole, trying to impress someone, or perhaps even just himself.

But the second, further set of marks? And that little pause before it? That would have been harder for the average Joe or Jane to hypothesize on. That would have meant delving a little deeper into specifics, like in that scene from “My Cousin Vinny”, where Marissa Tomei had gleefully explained in her faux-Bronx accent how the tire marks out front of the Sac O’ Suds absolutely must have been made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, and, oh my freakin’ Gawd! NOT by a 1964 Buick Skylark.

It would have meant knowing about things like gear ratios and “Posi-Traction”—Marissa had said it more like “Pawsi-Traction”—rear ends, and power-to-weight ratios. Which most people didn’t know the first thing about, of course.

Because- well, they hadn’t needed to.

For better or worse however, Jane knew exactly what had caused both sets of marks, and why. Because now, she knew all about cars. And especially about 1970 Chevelles. She’d read all the old magazines, and the shop manuals, and the specifications—after all, she’d had plenty of time—and by now she knew them all by heart. Could quote them at length, in fact. And well enough to probably give Jack or any one of his old hot-rodding buddies a pretty good hard-on. The only thing they’d liked more than good-looking girls and fast cars was good-looking girls who knew fast cars.

The marks had been made by a 1970-model Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396, “Fathom Blue” in color, powered by a 375 horsepower (SAE Net Rating), L78, Mark 2, “big-block” V-8, running a model-M40 Turbo-Hydramatic transmission and a 3.55:1-ratio “Posi-Traction” rear differential.

And that second, shorter set of marks? The Chevelle had made those as it shifted into second gear under full power. By then, the ignition timing would have been pegged at 36 degrees “BTDC” (Before Top Dead Center), and all four of the “Holley” model-4346, 780 CFM (Cubic Feet/Minute), “square-bore” carburetor’s 1.6875-inch barrels would have been open, with barely-atomized fuel pouring furiously down their throats from primary and secondary venturis at roughly the speed of sound.

The power valves would have gotten in on the act by then too; with the accelerator pedal floored, the engine’s manifold vacuum would likely have been way below the valves’ 8.5 inches-of-Mercury threshold, and so they too would have been dumping fuel—raw fuel, in that instance—straight down into the intake ports. Practically dumping it down the engine’s throat.

And all while it still screamed for more-

Because right about here, she guessed, at this intersection, was where the Chevelle had begun running for its life.

Hadn’t Jack had once proudly told her how the car could “burn the tires” in second gear? If you were really laying on it.

“Not that I’ve ever really tried,” he’d once told her with one of his big, goofy smiles. Which of course had been bullshit too; he’d probably “burned the tires” at every possible opportunity. Even, she had to admit, with the kids in the car.

And why not? It wasn’t really that dangerous.

Besides…

It kept the valves clean.

***

 

 

“Is This What You Want?”

She looked around and blinked. She’d drifted beyond the sign, out into the intersection. The realization made her heart skip a beat as she instinctively checked both ways for oncoming cars… until she remembered. Then she smiled at her foolishness; old habits apparently did die hard.

I’ve been zoning out more and more though, and that needs to stop, or before long I’m going to do something a lot stupider than sleep-jogging my way into an empty intersection. And that stupid thing could easily get me killed.

(Oh, Heaven forbid.)

“Oh fuck you!”

(Well then DO IT! Get it over with! Stop having this three-way bitch-fest with you, yourself and I, so we can go on! And on, and on, and on… that’s the way you seem to want it, anyway. I’m tired of this, and of helping you draw it out! See Jane Run! Jane runs fast. Jane runs down Silver Spring Drive fast. But finds nothing! Jane runs down Golden Slipper fast… but finds nothing again! Jane runs down Griffin Road fast- and hey! look! finds a fucking horror show! But still, in the end, really finds nothing. Because they’re all dead! Either gone without a trace (which by now I’m sure you’ll agree is the same as dead) or just plain dead-dead! Oh, and sure, the dead ones look like they’re alive- sort of, in that weird, wax-museum sort of way. Even the ones in that car from Day One, even though they burned- not completely maybe, but they burned all the same. Yet they still haven’t started to-)

“God damn it! Shut up! I know perfectly well what they haven’t started to do!”

She didn’t understand it, but she knew.

Back on Day One, amidst all of the other Hellish events that had eventually come to pass, Jane had found two cars. The first one she’d found was a new, red Mustang convertible. It had been sitting (and still sat), empty, in the field just up the road from where she now was.

The second car she’d found across the road from the first, in the field that lay opposite. That one she hadn’t been able to identify, at least not any further than knowing it wasn’t the Chevelle. It had rolled, violently it seemed, onto its roof, and then caught fire before she’d arrived.

But that car, unfortunately, hadn’t been empty. Inside, three bodies hung upside down from their seat belts. She remembered how the one body’s hand had flopped out through a broken rear window. It had already started to smolder. And would before long, she’d decided, be just a cinder. The fire had already engulfed the car’s rear end, and begun licking its way forward…

She hadn’t stuck around to see what eventually happened. By then she’d been well on her way toward a pretty violent crash of her own.

However, when she’d passed the wreck two days later, she’d noticed that the bodies seemed to have been spared from most of the effects of the fire. Maybe because the car was upside down, she’d guessed. Heat, and fire, they tended to go up, didn’t they? Not down. So…

It had been a shame, in any case. Better they’d burned, she’d thought, nice and cleanly to cinders, the way she’d assumed they would. Even way back then she’d had neither the time nor the inclination to pull them from the wreck and bury them properly. Even though she knew, that left that way, hanging there in the wreck, they would rot. And stink. And that from then on, she would have to see them going, little by little, every time she passed.

What she didn’t understand now though, was why those bodies, as well as the few others she’d happened to find, even after the subsequent one hundred and seven days, still had not yet started to decompose. The burnt remains of the car in the field had long since begun to rust, but the bodies inside remained. Partially burnt, yes, and a little dried-out looking, but still intact, as if they weren’t really corpses at all, but were rather just some ghoulish, wax-museum memorial to violent car crashes.

And that other wreck? The green Honda she’d found out along Griffin Road a few days later? She always ran on the far side of the road from that one, and tried to look down when she passed it. Because God, she just couldn’t stand him… looking at her. With his grim face…

And his little booster seat in the back. The one that sits empty, even though its little belts are still buckled. Because there’d once been a-

(But you still keep running past it! Every time! Despite what I’ve been telling you, you just keep going- on and on and on! You know what you’re going to find- if, and that’s a big IF, you ever do find it… find them. Is that what you want? To remember them like that? Why would you want that? So why? Why keep going? In such a horrible, silent, dead world?)

The thing was, she didn’t want that. And she didn’t want to keep going on. Not running, not wondering, not waiting- none of it. She truly did want it all to be over.

But just not yet.

For some reason she thought just then of the slowly dilapidating Harmon place. Which gave her an idea. Perhaps there was something she could do about the car’s desiccated-but-still-intact occupants.

Perhaps if she were to burn them, just to get the process over with.

To save her the daily depression of watching them… not rot, slowly.


 

***

She finally made the left and started down the field road toward home, leaving the tire marks behind. In two days she’d follow them again. She hoped to follow the road all the way to 87 South next time. That was the only way to go anymore, and her only hope of finding whatever she might find. That was the way the wall had gone, she figured. It had gone north to south; following them.

She always tried not to imagine what must have happened next. She tried to think of it only from a logical point of view that would allow her to plan her next long run. Sometimes, she even flat-out lied to herself about it. The way she did in her dreams.

In those, the tire marks instead always went left and thus north, but never went through a towering, horizon-wide wall of shimmering blue light that erased any living thing it could reach. Never got chased down by it, while it slid, remorseless and unrelenting, behind its seemingly endless line of angry black thunderheads and worldwide stabs of lightning, across- Jesuseverything.

Until, finally…

Because in her dreams, that horrific thing never existed. In her dreams, Jack and the kids always pulled into the driveway ten minutes after they’d left. And from there, everything always went blissfully, wonderfully the same. The Chevelle’s engine would go silent but for the tick of cooling metal, its rumble replaced by the sound of slamming car doors and chattering children. And by the voice of their father, sounding a bit like a boy himself. The voices would then go hushed for a few moments as they got their story straight. The burnout would stay a guilty little secret. They would have a wonderfully normal lunch outside and a pretty, green hummingbird would come to the feeder.

The real tire marks, of course, told her different. She didn’t know whether to be thankful for them or not. For better or worse though, she knew that Jack and the kids had seen the wall coming. Had probably seen the Mustang and the crash of the burnt car too. And so, instead of turning left for home, Jack had swung the Chevelle right and floored it down Franklin Hollow Road, leaving the tire marks like two long, black bread crumbs for her to follow.

From there she could only think of the car, not her loves inside. She thought only in terms of it; never them. Every time she ran to the right, her mind would say, this is the way “it” went; never, this is the way “they” went. Every time she tried searching down a new road, she would wonder if she might finally find “it”. To think in any other terms, to imagine what might actually have happened inside of it– to them, was just too much. And if thought about too hard, or for too long, the idea of it would surely drive her insane.

So from then on it was just the big blue Chevelle that had roared south, chirped its tires and continued to accelerate. It had gone dodging down whichever roads promised to keep it south of the advancing blue wall, getting one last Italian tune-up as it ran for its life.

She was fairly certain by now that it had made Route 87. Beyond that though, she just couldn’t be sure.  Her only hope was the tunnel that went deep under Rook Mountain on the turnpike. If Atlas House had somehow saved her, well… then maybe the tunnel had somehow saved them

It was possible. About ten miles south of the intersection with Franklin Hollow, Route 87 had an on-ramp that the Chevelle could’ve taken to get there.

But the tunnel itself was so far away, and by then the turnpike would probably have been choked with other fleeing cars…

Still, she would try Route 87. Then maybe she’d try for Quonset, on the way to Redstone and the turnpike. That was pushing the practical limits of what her feet could do though. Eventually she’d have to give up the relative safety of Atlas, or at least leave it for greater stretches of time. Or she’d have to give up the running and really try to find a bike. She carried little hope for that idea—there just weren’t many houses around—but she’d have to try.

She thought of her friend Ginny. Ginny had been a big mountain biker. Which made Jane wonder once in a while about her bike.

But then she always reconsidered. Ginny’s house was maybe 20 miles north, and roughly a thousand feet up Mt. Jenkins to boot.

Another potential problem was that Ginny had been a big mountain biker, and thus she’d liked nothing more than a good Saturday morning ride. So her bike was probably nowhere near her house. More likely, it was laying somewhere out on a now overgrown trail. Maybe Ginny was out there too. Jane didn’t know whether to hope for that or not.

It didn’t matter. If she had to keep running she would. She would run until she found the Chevelle, or until she was certain that she’d never find it. That was her ultimate goal. Only then, when she’d finally reached that, would she actually think of her loves in the car again. She would let all their unsprung weight return until she couldn’t bear it any longer. She would cry over them one last time-

Then she would unzip the pack on her belly, take out Jack’s gun, and calmly shoot herself through the head with it. She’d certainly had plenty of time to assess herself, and she was sure she would do it. It would be a relief.

(For both of us.)

“Yeah, maybe. But, for the time being…”

(I know, I know…)

The intersection fell further behind her. Ahead lay the field road, still shrouded in fog, emerging one stride at a time. Off to the left, she could just make out the faint red shape of the Mustang. Further off, she knew, was the twisted wreck of the other car that hadn’t stopped so peacefully. With the burnt but somehow not rotting hand still sticking out of it, and the disfigured but somehow still intact bodies hanging within.

She looked down at her watch and frowned; she’d only spent a few minutes at the intersection, but it had really screwed her time. On the upside though-

(Oh Christ- “On the upside”, “on the upside”- always you and the God-damned “upside”… STOP already! Just-)

From behind her suddenly began the faintest rumbling sound. Coming from… the south? She thought. Maybe… two miles distant. She looked back over her shoulder as she ran, trying to discern its source. But the fog, she saw, closed in much closer than that. So she spun around and began to backpedal, eyes narrowed. It was definitely far off, whatever it was, but coming closer- coming northward. And coming quickly, she realized, because it grew appreciably louder with every second.

Suddenly, something that sounded like lightning- or far-off gunfire, joined the rumble. Her hand felt for the pack and her fingers found the zipper. Meanwhile, the sound kept building, coming ever closer. Her eyes still tried- strained now, to see… But the fog, in turn, still gave up nothing. So she’d been right, this morning, to be worried by it. Here now was the proof.

And she wouldn’t be able to outrun it, she suddenly knew. Not even now, after all this time; she’d been training for endurance, not speed…

So why bother trying…

(Exactly…)

She stopped backpedaling— well, didn’t really stop; it wasn’t good to just stop in the middle of a run, so—she jogged in place, waiting.

The sound grew suddenly louder, as if its source had just cleared the nearest hill. A rolling, pulsing boom.

She began to pull…

But then she stopped jogging altogether and just stood, perfectly still. Her hands fell limp at her sides, and tears welled up in her eyes. She recognized the sound. And through the fog she saw blue-

It was coming back.

 

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