Ultraglis

Stories

Not Even Cahokia Will Survive

Adapted from Young Fellows in Front of Pool Hall, Jackson, Ohio by Theodor Jung, April 1936 LC-DIG-fsa-8a14275

We were living at the end of the world, and people knew it too, and yet nobody was really doing anything about it. It's as if somebody slashes your femoral artery and you're bleeding out like an oil gusher, and all you can do is gripe about it on Facebook.

There were signs galore, signs that people had been talking about since for-fucking-ever: global warming, Donald Trump, genetically modified food, artificial flavors, artificial colors, artificial preservatives; additives, fillers, corn syrup, gluten, cancer, diabetes, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, nutrient pollution, fossil fuels, Hurricane Katrina, Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the VMA, Klan rallies, ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Koch Brothers, Archer Daniels Midland, Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, premium cable, the Big Ten Network, Russia hacking the election, Steve Bannon in the White House, James O'Keefe at a soup kitchen; the 1%, the 2%, the devil among us; Columbine, Sandy Hook, Pulse night club, Dancing with the Stars, Cher's eternal farewell tour, Ebola, Zika, AntiFa, tanning parlors, nail salons in every fucking strip mall; Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Street View, the NSA, the surveillance state; it begins with ATMs and ends with mass unemployment, inflation, subprime mortgage bonanza, the Chicago Cubs winning the world series; the Keystone pipeline, Deep Water Horizon, the seven feuds of Taylor Swift all sealed up like a blister; the European Union, Brexit, Israel, Iran, North Korea. Yeah, don't even talk to me about how you knew. Spare me. Let's talks about SARS, MRSA, MOOCs, MILFs, DILFs, bukkake, Liberty University, frat boys, rapists, white power, white privilege, white flight; genocide, sweatshops, sex trafficking—that's the kind of shit I'm talking about, and you were talking about and everyone was talking about, so spare me your whining. Thanks to the Internet we all knew the facts, and what's more we even knew what to think about the facts; thanks to the Internet we didn't even have to think—all that predigested information spoon fed to us like how a robin feeds its helpless little babies in a nest. All we had to do was act, and since we weren't helpless little babies, we were capable of acting, but we wouldn't and we didn't and we always had reasons why we couldn't. Our few pathetic little acts of "resistance" were lifestyle choices; they were fashion statements.

Donny taught me all this, and he also taught me that the time for real resistance had passed, and that we had entered the brutal phase of survival.

But that's all in the future.

It's August, the end of the summer after I graduated from high school. All the kids from my class who are going to college have begun leaving, or are getting ready to leave, although there actually aren't that many of them. Our graduating class was about a hundred kids, and our town is small to boot, so everybody knows what everyone else is gonna do, and everybody cares too. I'll let you figure out what I mean by "cares". At prom the high school principal even recites before the whole fucking town each senior's post-graduation plans. For those of us with no plans—well, I'm not gonna lie, it pretty much sucks, but at least they let you write your own paragraph. Here was mine: "Jeremy Renner"—(no, I'm not named after the movie star, though when I asked my parents they told me I was, and then I told my friends I was, and then one day I read on Wikipedia that almost nobody had ever even heard of Jeremy Renner until a few years after I was born, and I guess my disillusionment with family life pretty much began there)—"was active in nothing. His interests include Grand Theft Auto. After graduation he plans to pursue a career in electronics." That's what I wrote for the principal to say about me. I was surprised he actually read the part about "active in nothing", because I was trying to be a smart ass, but I guess since it's true that I was active in nothing he went ahead and read it. The business about a career in electronics I just made up. In truth, I had no idea where you could get work in electronics, and I didn't really know anything about electronics anyway, other than how to use them.

All summer my parents kept bugging me about getting a job, and then I accidentally got my girlfriend pregnant and she wanted to get married and start a family but I didn't, at least not with her, and so she decided to get an abortion instead, which I had to pay for. My parents didn't know anything about the pregnancy and the whole time I was dealing with that, they were bugging me about getting a job.

In short, it was a pretty lousy summer.

Anyway, it's August and I'm driving my pickup back from Ficklin when it breaks down just past the old cemetery at the edge of the Bailey farm. I'm at least five or ten miles from home (Arcola, Illinois—not sure if I mentioned that yet), and there's nothing much to do but start walking because the battery's dead on my phone. It's two in the afternoon and I feel like I'm walking through a goddamn furnace, when I see an SUV approaching from the south. At first I'm not sure if it's real, because for about fifteen minutes I've been staring down a shimmering water mirage at the end of the visible road, and like all mirages it never gets any closer. The SUV, however, does get closer, and as it nears me I become convinced of its reality, and it begins to slow, and although I don't recognize the vehicle I'm hoping the person will let me use their cell phone. It finally crawls to a stop beside me, and the driver rolls his window down, and he's a man, early thirties probably, and he looks friendly enough, but he's definitely a stranger. Also, the SUV has Kentucky plates, and, like I said, this is Illinois.

He says, "Give you a ride somewhere?"

"Sure, but I don't think I'm headed your direction. Could I just use your cell phone to make a call?"

He completely ignores the second part of my question, and says, "Meh, that don't matter. Hop in."

I don't really know why, because obviously you're not supposed to get into a car with a stranger, but it's not like he's offering me candy and anyway I figure I can take this dude if I have to, and also for some reason I don't really care. It's not like I have much to lose one way or the other, and the possibility of being tied up, tortured, sodomized, and killed by a Kentucky psychopath cruising the backroads of Douglas County Illinois just doesn't seem all that real to me. Also, he doesn't even have a southern accent, so I'm seriously doubting whether he's really even from Kentucky. I don't know why I put this last fact on the "not a risk" side of the equation. I mean, there are probably more serial killers from the north than the south. I have a lot to learn.

For whatever reason, clearly not entirely known to myself, I get into his car.

He says, "Where're you going?"

I say, "Arcola," I guess expecting him to know where that is, and weirdly he actually does.

He performs an impressive three point turn, and heads back in the direction he just came from.

He says, "What're you doing way out here?"

I think that's an odd question because, I mean, shouldn't I be asking HIM that question? But I guess there's no point in getting confrontational, so I say, "My truck broke down, about two miles back."

"Bet you're glad I happened to be driving this way. Last town I passed was about five miles back."

"That would be Arcola. That's where I need to go." I'm super curious what he's doing on this road, and then I decide, fuck it, I'm just gonna ask, so I say, "Where're you going? Don't usually see many cars with Kentucky plates on this road."

He chuckles, but not a creepy chuckle, although it's also not an uncreepy chuckle. "Oh me? Laughs. Well, I'll tell you: I'm driving to a survivalist commune. I guess that sounds a little weird."

I don't know why, but I feel obligated to reassure him that it doesn't sound weird, even though it definitely does, so I say, "No, it sounds interesting."

He looks at me, apparently encouraged, so he continues: "This group bought a nursing home that went belly up. Called 'Prairie View'. The nursing home was called that, and the survivalist community just kept the name. You ever notice how they always seem to build nursing homes out in the middle of nowhere?"

I say "Yeah," even though I haven't in fact ever noticed that. Then, to change the subject a little, I say, "And you came up from Kentucky?"

"That's right."

But now I'm actually getting a little bit curious about this survivalist commune, so I ask, "What do you plan to do once you get there?"

"Hopefully I'll join them. It all depends on whether they accept me, but even if they don't, the trip will make a good practice run."

"Practice run for what?"

"The end of times."

"Oh, you mean like Armageddon?"

"Maybe. I don't tend to think of it in religious terms, but I guess why not. For me, I expect something more like nuclear holocaust, or global warming, flooding, famine, civil unrest. In the end, no pun intended, it doesn't really matter what causes it. Only the prepared will get out the other end alive."

I'm becoming more curious. I don't really even know why. A year earlier, I would have jumped from the moving vehicle. I would have thought him a total fucking lunatic. Instead, I say, "Maybe when I get my truck fixed, I'll go there too."

"Yeah? You serious?"

"Why not? There's nothing for me in Arcola."

"Well you could come with me then."

I ask him, "If you're coming all the way from Kentucky, how come you ended up on this road? I mean, this is a county road. It doesn't really go anywhere. I would've thought you'd be taking interstates."

"Oh, well that's part of my training. I'm taking county and state roads all the way, but mostly county roads. It's more like the end of times, like the desolation and all."

"Huh. You must not be in any big rush to get there then."

"I am, but I got a lot to learn too."

I hesitate, and then I nod.

He says, "Hey, I'm serious, why not come with me? If you don't like it, I can drive you to the nearest town, and you can catch a bus back here."

The idea is weirdly appealing.

He says, "My name's Deleuze, by the way: Donny Deleuze."

"Nice to meet you. I'm Jeremy."

"No last name?"

"Renner. Jeremy Renner."

"Nice to meet you Jeremy."

The rest of the drive back to Arcola we sit mostly in silence; I'm chewing over whether or not I should go with him. In the end, I decide I will. There's not much for me in Arcola, and actually it's a little uncomfortable because, like I said, I had just aborted my own child, or paid for it to be done anyway. I know it's a woman's body and a woman's choice—I'm totally pro-choice, and I hate Republicans. I mean, nobody hates Republicans more than me. I watch the Daily Show; I follow Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart and LeBron James and Jamie Foxx and Stephen Curry on Twitter; I even follow Lady Gaga and Beyonce, and Katy Perry, so I understand that my girlfriend, not me, had our baby killed, I mean aborted, I mean the pregnancy killed and aborted. But I paid for it. And she said I was the reason she decided to have an abortion, on account of I wouldn't marry her. So it was definitely her body and her choice, but somewhere in all that I had something to do with something. I'm a little foggy on the details. It doesn't really matter, because the Republican fucks in Arcola couldn't be expected to understand the whole concept of a woman's body and a woman's choice, so naturally I get blamed and the news has been slowly spreading, and people are beginning to give me bad looks, like what a bastard I am for not doing the honorable thing and marrying her and starting a family. It's only a matter of time before my parents find out. Plus I don't have a job or any prospects for one, at least not any that I feel good about, and all my younger friends are getting ready to start high school again which is depressing and I actually envy them: I wish I had another year in high school, another year to figure stuff out, but I don't and basically I'm screwed. I blame a lot of what happened to me on this whole idea that we're all supposed to be so goddamned special, that we're supposed to find jobs that are satisfying or meaningful or fulfilling or whatever the fuck they tell you in high school: you can be anything you want to be; never stop dreaming; you are good; you are special; celebrate yourself; you have gifts and your job should help you develop those gifts. A load of garbage, if you ask me. Fuck that shit. It didn't do anything but lay a total mind fuck on me.

I leave a note at home explaining that I have decided to join a survivalist commune up north. I don't mention the abortion, but I tell them where the truck is, just past the cemetery which suddenly seems somewhat appropriate. I pack some clothing, my meds, my rifle, my pistol, and my shotgun, throw it all in the back of Donny's SUV, and we head back out of town the exact same way we came in. It's kind of strange when we pass my truck, broken down and now abandoned on the side of the road: I feel as though I have just left one dimension and am now traveling along in another. It's kind of thrilling, like a jailbreak, as if I have just set myself free of my girlfriend and our dead baby and the gossip and the job that I don't have and the potential that I'll never fulfill. I'm actually kind of stoked; in fact, I haven't been this stoked in months, maybe not ever.

---

We ride for about twenty minutes in silence. I take two Tylenol because my head is killing me. The silence is driving me nuts. Donny apparently has unlimited powers of concentration. Just to break the silence, and because I think it would be kind of funny, I ask Donny, "You aren't a pedophile or something?"

He answers, "Why? You aren't a child are you?"

Weird how he didn't actually answer the question. But also weird because his counter-question causes me to start thinking about the whole abortion thing again. You know, how people are always asking when or whether a fetus becomes a child, and now Donny asks me if I'm a child, which is a good question, and it reminds me of this idea I've been having recently about how parents should be allowed to end a child's life at any point before it turns eighteen, which apparently is the age of legal maturity or adulthood or majority or something like that I heard on television. Anyway, as I see it, this would be like a very late term abortion. It's just an idea, but I wonder if my parents would take this option on me, the very late term abortion option. I honestly could not blame them in the least if that had been their choice. But it's too late now since I'm LEGALLY an adult, and yet I feel like a child. Plus I've been sort of suicidal for over a year now, so if I had actually killed myself that would be kind of like a self-abortion, which seems pretty cool, actually, and another reason to be be pro-choice.

Getting back to Donny's answer, though, I'm also thinking that, whether or not I am a child, it would still be creepy if he is wanting to have sex with me. I mean, I was seventeen just three months ago. Does three months really make that big a difference? So just to clarify, I ask him, "But you aren't some psycho gay rapist or sodomite or anything?"

He shakes his head, completely unfazed, and says, "I am not. Are you?"

I hadn't even considered the possibility that he might have the same fears and worries about ME as I'm having about HIM, and I'm realizing that Donny's actually a very deep guy, and I start to have a lot of respect for him, and maybe that's how come he can remain silent for so long, because he's having these deep kind of thoughts.

Anyway, I give his question some serious consideration—his question whether I am a psycho gay rapist or sodomite, and I have to admit it's a hard truth he has opened my eyes to, a truth that I'd really rather not admit. I say, "I guess we're gonna be in this car together for a long time, and maybe at the commune too, so I should admit that TECHNICALLY, according to the Bible, or at least what the pastor at our church, my parents' church I mean—according to Reverend Steve, I would have to, I mean if there's a God which obviously there isn't but if there is, then I guess I would have to—"

"Hey dude," he interrupts me, "Just say what you want to say. No judgment here. No judgment on the past."

"Well," I hesitate, still wanting to explain some of the technicalities and loopholes, as I see them, but I decide instead just to take the plunge, "I guess that technically speaking I am a sodomite. You see, I would never have expected this, but I was amazed when I found out that almost every girl not in high school, every woman, APPARENTLY likes to have a guy do it to her in the behind. Have you ever noticed that?"

"I don't know man; I hadn't really thought about it. I guess you're right though—a lot of women do like that."

"Well, in my experience, which I'm not saying is by any means universal, almost all girls out of high school seem to want that. I made it with lots of women in their twenties and thirties—you can find them on Craig's List, and you would not believe how many horny housewives there are up in Champaign, which is a pretty short drive from my house. Anyway, these women—I guess they aren't girls anymore—they almost all love to have me do it to them from behind, in the you-know-what."

"Hey, just say it dude: they like to take it up the ass. No shame here."

So I say, slowly at first, as if I'm doing something extraordinarily courageous, "A lot of women like to be fucked in the ass. And it's not just because they're afraid of getting pregnant either, which is what I first assumed. These women are like the exact reverse of high school girls. High school girls will always say, 'Pull it out before you cum', regardless of whether I have it in their mouths or their vaginas. It's actually pretty annoying. But these older women are like the exact opposite: they always say, be sure to cum in my vagina or my mouth. Well, not those words exactly, but that's what they want me to do. I think they don't want their husbands to find cum stains on the sheets. And I guess that's the same reason they don't want me to wear a condom: they don't want their husbands to find used condoms in the trash. So they all let you cum in their vaginas and their mouths and their asses. I actually don't like anal sex; I think it's kind of gross. But women seem to love it, and I feel as though I ought to do it for them if they like it that much. I often wonder why they like it, though. I try to imagine what that would feel like, and it just does not sound appealing at all to me."

I realize I'm babbling, which is one of my problems—my counselor says it's not a problem but a challenge. Anyway, I'm babbling, and Donny is just staring straight ahead at the road, occasionally nodding, but I don't think he's really INTO the conversation, although he could just be having deep thoughts about it, but I decide just to shut up, and we travel along for another little while in silence.

Eventually, as if to start fresh on a whole new subject, he says, "It's hard to believe, but all this land, as far as the eye can see, literally as far as the eye can see, was cornfields."

My first reaction is just like, whoah! Has Donny just gone off the deep end? I look out the window as if to confirm that we're both on the same planet, and I say, a little cautiously, "But it still IS cornfields."

"Yes, but I'm thinking it all through, the end of times, what it'll be like and all that. I told you that's why we're taking county roads. It's more realistic. When the end comes, there will be no law enforcement, and the Interstates will be infested with marauders and bandits, so the backroads will actually be safer. Also, we have to develop our ability to navigate without road signs, and these county roads give us that too. We're just going by cardinal directions now. That's all we'll have. The sun in the sky and our internal compasses. At some point people won't even know what a cornfield looked like."

I say, "Oh, I see," even though I don't see.

He continues, "As far as the eye can see was corn. Not just corn, but almost miraculously symmetrical rows of corn, each row precisely parallel to the others, each stalk exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, the same height as all the others. Every field geometrically perfect. When they stopped farming the land, none of the corn came back. It was totally fucked up; it was unnatural. It's not like in a garden where, even if you leave it untended, the plants will often return the next year on their own, and sometimes even the next year too, before succumbing finally to weeds. After they stopped farming, the fields were just literally raw soil. Eventually, the rain finally washed away the herbicides, and the prairie began returning, at first slowly, and then it took hold and spread quickly, as if with a vengeance. So the prairie came back, and then the buffalo did too, and now here it is and it's all people know."

It occurs to me that, if this road trip is going to work, then I will just have to play along with his crazy ideas. You can't reason with a crazy person. My mother would say that Donny needs to be medicated, and he probably does, too. Anyway, just to play along, I ask, "Why did the corn never return?"

As if I have asked precisely the question he wanted me to ask, he exclaims, "Science! The crops were all engineered so that every year the farmers had to buy new seeds from the manufacturers, because only the new seeds would work with the new fertilizers and the new herbicides and the new pesticides. The farmers bought it all as a package, like a kit, and each year the manufacturers switched up the formulas so you could never reuse last year's seeds or fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides, not even if you had bought enough of the previous year's stock for two seasons, because the seeds were designed to expire! It's really ingenious, in a way. But it was hard on the people when the farm companies went under—you couldn't get seed, because there were no seed companies to manufacture seed. So the farmers subdivided their land, and sold the plots to locals, and the whole economy basically returned to subsistence agriculture: the locals, they just took as much land as they needed and started planting vegetables, and they learned how to preserve vegetables—canning and all that stuff. Sure, there were a few bad winters, but nothing like in the cities, where you saw mass starvation and looting and chaos. The people in the cities—all their food had to be made for them. Out here, some knowledge of gardening had always been part of the culture, even if before the end that knowledge was used mainly by pathetic housewives looking for something to fill the void in their unfulfilling lives. At least it was something, a remnant. Funny, when you think about it, that the human race should be saved by middle aged women with their gardening clubs and their county fairs. And the people out here, they never had good Internet, so they never got rid of their books either. In the cities there was scarcely a book to be found anywhere, since the books had all been digitized, and there were definitely no books on gardening and preserving and cooking. No information on animal husbandry or hunting or field dressing. The people in the cities, they were in serious denial about where their food came from. They did not want to know, and they opposed hunting on moral grounds. So they literally knew nothing about how to grow or prepare food."

He continues lecturing on this topic for at least half an hour, and I stop paying attention to him, and he doesn't notice that I have stopped paying attention.

We're on county road 600 East. We pass through Ficklin, which is the town I was returning from when my car broke down. As we leave Ficklin, I feel like I'm passing a point of no return. It's silly I know, but that's how I feel. Goodbye Ficklin, and then goodbye Douglas County. Already the world we have entered becomes less and less familiar. We pass through a town called Sadorus, which I've heard of, but never been to. Then we hit a town called Fisher, which I've never even heard of. After Fisher, we begin zig-zagging the county roads: west, then north, then west, and so forth. We frequently have to back-track.

Someplace in McLean County, we encounter a farm stand. Donny stops at the stand. The farmer is selling fruit and eggs and vegetables. About fifteen feet behind his stand is a red-and-white striped tent, like a circus tent kind of. I remain in the car, but Donny gets out and approaches the farmer. I don't know what they are talking about—Donny is gesturing wildly, but the farmer does not appear displeased. Eventually the farmer hands Donny a watermelon; I don't think Donny pays him for it.

When Donny gets back into the car, I ask, "What was that all about?"

"I was getting us some food."

"How did you pay for it?"

"I traded. We're getting back to the elemental, Jeremy. Forget paper money. It'll be worthless soon."

"What did you give him in exchange for the watermelon?"

Donny glances at me, and then says, a little cryptically, "The information. I gave him the information in exchange for a watermelon."

"What information?"

He says, "Hey kid, sometimes you ask too many questions."

I accept this rebuke. "Oh. Okay." I realize that maybe I am actually getting a little wound up, and I take a Klonopin.

"Also," he says, "You take an awful lot of pills. You've been popping pills all day. I'm not prying or anything, and I don't know what kind of pills you're taking, and I'm not judging you, but I'm just saying as a matter of fact that your apparent dependence on pills could be a problem at the commune, and will certainly be a problem when the end comes. After the end, I don't think you'll be able to get these pills or any pills." The he looks at me with concern, and says, "You might want to think about that," which of course is exactly the opposite of what I want to do.

I ask, "What else was he selling besides watermelon?"

"Why don't you get out and ask him yourself?"

I decide that I would like to get out of the car anyway, so I walk over to the farmer, who greets me, "Hello there sonny. What can I sell you?"

I say "Oh, I was just curious what you got here. I'm not too hungry just now, though."

He sort of winks at me, and says, "Not hungry, but curious, eh?"

I nod, "Yeah, I guess." I can hear chickens; it sounds like they're inside the tent.

He says, "Well now, I got something might satisfy the curiosity in you."

I'm highly doubting that he does, but I say, "Oh?"

He nods his head in the direction of the tent. "Miss McClean County in there."

I don't quite understand what he's getting at. I say, "Oh, that's neat. She's from around here?"

He grins, "That's right."

"That's cool," I say. "Congratulations."

"She's learning a new trick for the state pageant."

"Oh."

He says, "You wanna see her trick?"

"I don't know. Maybe." I'm mostly prolonging the conversation at this point because I don't want to get back on the road yet. "What's her trick?"

"Five dollars," he says.

At first I don't understand what he means, then I realize he's telling me that I have to pay him five dollars to see Miss McClean County perform her new trick. I'm not really into the idea, but then I remember how Donny says that paper money won't be worth anything anyway, so what the hell. I take out my billfold and hand him five dollars.

He smiles real broad, like he's sure I'm gonna be a happy customer. He says, "You go on in, then."

I'm surprised he's not going to escort me, or anything. I start to wonder if it's an ambush, like the marauding that Donny was talking about. As I get closer to the tent, I just have a weird feeling about the whole thing. I don't know how else to put it. I change my mind and turn around.

The farmer doesn't even seem surprised or disappointed that I decided not to enter the tent, and I decide not to ask for my money back. I just get back in the car. Donny doesn't act surprised either, and he doesn't even ask me any questions. He just starts up the car, and we drive on.

---

I must have taken too much Klonopin, because I nodded off, and when I wake I realize that I have been dreaming, but it takes me a moment to figure out which memories are the dream, and which memories are reality.

I look left, and I am in fact with Donny Deleuze, so he is reality, and his SUV is reality, and this road we're on is reality.

The dream part slowly precipitates out from reality, and forms a deposit in the bottom of my mind, like how we did with magnesium carbonate in Chemistry class:

I walked into the farmer's tent. Inside, the tent walls were lined with tiny chicken cages; the chickens had no beaks. My girlfriend sat in a chair, surrounded by these caged chickens. She wore a beauty pageant gown, and a sash across her breast that said "McLean County Fair Queen." I was surprised how she could be McLean County Fair Queen, seeing as she lives in Douglas County. She acknowledged my presence with a nod, then she spread her legs and pulled her gown up above her knees. She said, "Take a bite of creamy and smooth Mother's Oats. It's rich in protein. It'll give you that wonderful stick-to-your-ribs feeling, that wonderful feeling of well being. Only from Quaker."

The words were from this commercial I had seen on YouTube, for Quaker oatmeal, but for some reason it was called Mother's Oats, not Quaker Oats like how it is today. And the words were very wholesome, but my girlfriend, in the dream, made them filthy. It was a repulsive dream, if you want to know the truth.

To get rid of the memory, I think of my dog, back home. I wonder if he'll ever wonder what happened to me. Terry—that's his name—is probably sitting in the front window right now, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. I'm not there anymore to see him; I wonder if I'll ever see him again.

I'm also wishing I could get the battery on my phone recharged. I would really like to see if I have any messages from friends. There'll probably be about six dozen voicemails from my parents, but I'm just gonna delete those. I don't feel like dealing with that shit right now.

Donny asks, "Did you doze off?"

"Yeah."

"Dream at all?"

"Yeah, but it was just one of those stupid ones, pieced together from stupid memories."

"No dream is stupid. They're portals. But they're portals to places we aren't going. We're going someplace altogether different. The stars hold more for us now than dreams do. People don't look at the stars enough. That's one of the biggest problems with Christianity..."

I sort of lose interest at this point. I mean, not looking at the stars enough is hardly one of Christianity's biggest problems. I'd say pretty much everything having to do with sex ranks higher, at least for me. He's still talking but I'm not paying any attention.

We pass through Bellflower, and I ask if we can stop at the Casey's.

"What for?"

"I'm hungry."

"No way," he says. "I just got us some food."

I stare skeptically at the watermelon: "You really think that'll be enough for both of us?"

"Oh sure." Then he spots a men's clothing store, and says, "We will stop there, though. You need some new duds."

"What?"

"We can't turn up at the compound with you dressed like that."

"Dressed like what?"

"I don't know," he says: "A slob. You don't look like a very serious guy. These survivalists aren't going to accept somebody that doesn't look like he's very serious about survival."

I'm wondering how a person that's serious about survival would be dressed, and I ask Donny, "So how should I look?"

"You need a suit. I do too."

"Are you kidding? It's too hot for a suit anyway."

"You don't have to wear a tie. I'm not going to. But you need a suit. We both need suits."

"How am I supposed to pay for a new suit? I don't have that much money."

"I'll put it on my credit card. I can max the thing out—it's not like anyone's gonna be around to collect on it."

"Oh," I say, "You mean on account of how the world's going to end?"

"That's right."

So he stops at this store—some old men's store that looks as if it hasn't updated its inventory for about fifty years—and the salesman fits us up with new suits and new shirts. Donny also lets me buy this cool pair of white sunglasses. The sunglasses are brand new, by which I mean they aren't used. They have probably been sitting on the shelf since about 1950. The yellowing price tag says they are 75¢. We leave the store wearing our new suits, and we resume our journey. I'm actually feeling pretty cool in my suit and new sunglasses. I'm feeling happy. I think the only thing that could make me happier would be if I could get the battery on my phone charged. I'm really missing the phone.

About twenty minutes later, we pull off the highway at a roadside table, and Donny cuts the watermelon in half with a big cleaver he has in the back of his SUV. For a moment I have a vision of him cutting me up with that same cleaver, after he has raped and killed me. Or maybe before he has raped me. The vision is actually quite vivid and realistic. More so even than that horrible dream about my girlfriend. I have a lot of questions about Donny, but not the kind of questions you ask.

He hands me half the watermelon, and keeps half for himself. The watermelon is a seedless one. He says, "Be careful of your new clothes."

"Okay." I realize that obedience comes in waves. Obedience to Donny. Sometimes I rebel against it, but other times I don't: I give in, and those giving in times actually feel sort of good. I don't know why.

Then he says, referring to the watermelon, "Now, pretend you don't know what it is. What's it look like?"

This question reminds me of the assessment tests that the school psychologist gave me, back when I was in school. Like those Rorschach tests. I stare at the watermelon, at the pink part, and finally I say, "Well, to be perfectly honest, it looks like a giant, slowly healing flesh wound. Maybe the skin of a burn victim." I also think, remembering some pictures from our sex ed unit in health class, that it looks a little bit like a syphilitic pussy, and I realize I'm cringing.

Donny apparently does not notice my cringing, and he says, "That's good. You're really thinking fresh thoughts now," and at first I think he has read my mind, and that he's referring to my thought about the syphilitic pussy, but obviously that can't be true. He says, "You see how it has no seeds? You see that don't you?"

"Yeah."

"It isn't natural. Now, still supposing you don't know what it is: would you eat it?"

"I don't know. It's hard to imagine a scenario where I wouldn't recognize a watermelon."

"But supposing you don't. Supposing you were born after the end of the world, and you're being raised by people who never saw a watermelon, and you're starving and you come upon this fruit: do you think you would eat it?"

"I don't know. I guess probably not."

We each eat our watermelon halves, but we're both still hungry afterwards, so at the next town we stop at a Casey's, and I buy a hot dog and nachos. Donny buys a pizza and eats the entire thing himself.

Back in the SUV, Donny is constantly drilling me, catechizing me, like how, according to my Catholic friends, a priest catechizes his confirmation class. Donny asks me, "What is your need?"

"To survive, I guess."

He says, "Drop the 'I guess'. If you aren't one hundred percent certain, then we're fucked. You have to be certain. No room for doubt. Would you be willing to do anything to survive?"

"I don't know. I guess so."

For the first time, he yells at me, "Your 'I guess' is worth shit. It's worse than a 'no', a no, you are not willing to do anything to survive!"

"Fine then, I will; I am. I'll do anything." Christ, I'd do just about anything anyway, and for much less than survival too.

He says, "Would you be willing to betray me?"

At this point, I'm thinking, I probably would be willing to betray him, because he's really getting on my nerves, but it's just not something you say out loud. I mean, it's just not cool to betray somebody who's supposed to be a friend. So I say, "No, of course not."

He says, "Then you aren't willing to do anything. I need for you to be willing to betray me, if that's what must be done to survive. Survival is the most important thing. We're the last hope for the human race."

I can't help but reflect upon how fucked the human race is, if what he says is true: that he and I are the human race's last hope. Then I'm bothered because, like I said just a second ago, this whole business of betrayal is a little uncool, and also it probably goes both ways, so I ask, "Does that mean you would be willing to betray me?"

"Absolutely. Sorry buddy, but absolutely. Survival is the only consideration. Survival of the human race."

"My god."

"Don't be so surprised. It's theoretical. We must become indispensable to one another; we must become essential. Our survival must depend on it. But if it doesn't, then we must be willing to do the right thing. We are rebuilding from the ground up. From here on out, everything is elemental."

"But isn't that," I hesitate to suggest, "mostly, like, a paranoid fantasy?"

Surprisingly, this question does not piss him off. He's not easily insulted. Instead he just says, "Is it? Look around you at these fields now: they're dying; we're dying too. We have to survive. We must learn to survive because we won't survive if we just behave like that corn in those fields, just letting the world push us around, just reacting to whatever happens. We have to take control; we have to survive. We gotta start getting serious now. YOU have to starting getting serious. You got a lot to learn. Do you know about the Land Ordinance of 1785, about Scott Air Force Base, Cahokia, Caterpillar, the Black Hawk War, the year two thousand fifty four? Do you know about the principal meridians and base lines and correction lines? Do you know about Wabokieshiek, about the MKULTRA experiments conducted at the University of Illinois on behalf of the CIA?"

"I don't know. I guess not."

"I figured as much. You got a lot to learn Jeremy, but by god you're gonna learn it, and you're gonna survive, and so am I."

---

I'm inside Donny's SUV, staring out the window, out there, at the world, and I realize how beautiful it is out there, in the world. I'm not often aware of beauty, at least natural beauty, but probably not any other kind either, except maybe female beauty, and even then I'm not sure it's their beauty I'm reeling on. Come to think of it, I don't really even know what beauty is.

Anyway, the late afternoon sky is completely clear and hot. But clear and hot, like, in a good way. Chicory and compass plant are blooming on the roadside; they seem to be basking in the sunshine. I mean, they actually LOOK happy. I wonder if I'm tripping. Maybe the heat is getting to me. The dark green corn appears cool and inviting, like you might even want to go in there, into the fields I mean. I know there are animals out there too, birds and rabbits and deer and all different kinds even dragonflies, although I don't hear or see any of them because the SUV is moving too fast, still I feel strangely calm and peaceful just knowing they are there, doing what they do, whatever it is that they do. The compass plant, the chicory, the corn, the birds, the rabbits—they are of this world, but I am not of this world.

I don't even know where we are. I am not of this world, but the landscape looks like home: this is the world where god put me, if there even is a god.

I am inside the SUV, inside the world I am now of. Donny is talking and has been talking for a long time. "...while according to historians, the French had long fantasized about imposing a grid onto this territory, and when the Americans finally possessed the land long enough to begin thinking about how they might best have their way with it, what do you think they did? And whose idea do you think it was? That Frenchified Frenchophile Thomas Jefferson said the whole territory should be blocked off into a massive grid of perfectly square sections, which would then form the basis of perfectly square townships. Your typical modern day American doesn't know anything about townships, many of which have been ruined anyway. And yet it was the townships and the sections, not the counties and the cities, that formed the basis of the new European civilization here. These roads we've been traveling—what do you think they are but those original section lines? We're ON the grid, dude, and there's no getting off, except by destroying the grid itself. Bear all this in mind moving forward. Now, a few centuries after Cahokia's demise, the Grand Village of Kaskaskia arose on the banks of the Illinois River..."

I wonder what kind of journey I actually signed on for. As long as it's a journey, then I'm fine with it. Through this world but not of this world. It's not like there's anything else for me. I just don't want to get bogged down in the details. Donny, on the other hand, seems to love nothing BUT the details.

"...the problem is that you can't put a square grid onto the earth, because the earth is round, not flat, so none of the sections can ever really and truly be square. The land surveyors had to introduce correction lines into the grid...now remember that the Indians and the French left Kaskaskia and moved back down into the American Bottom, back to, you guessed it, Cahokia. You think it's a coincidence that the United States military decided to build Scott Air Force Base, one of the most important air force bases in the whole country— you think it's a coincidence they built Scott Air Force Base right outside Cahokia...the original Kaskaskia is under water, flooded by the Army Corps of Engineers; the second Kaskaskia is also under water, flooded by the inexorable Mississippi..."

Donny continues talking, almost without stopping for breath, until evening. The sun is descending from where it finally peaked, up there in the sky. It has already been a long day for me; I'm getting tired and I'm starting to wonder where we'll sleep. I interrupt Donny, asking him, "Where are we gonna sleep?"

He barely even stops talking, but simply pivots into a new subject: "Okay, okay, calm down dude. I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll stop at the next farm house and ask if we can sleep in their barn. That's what people, travelers, used to do, and that's what they're gonna have to do again, when the time comes, and that's what we're gonna do now on this practice run. It's elemental; it's pure! We're doing it! We're making it happen!"

I don't really care if it is or is not elemental and pure; I'm just tired. At this point, nothing feels more elemental and pure than my exhaustion.

About five miles later, we encounter a farm house, and we stop, just like he said we would. We drive slowly up a fairly long, gravel driveway. The house is a typical farm house, with a big porch stretching clear across the front, and wooden stairs from the porch to the front lawn where there is no sidewalk because nobody really uses the front door anyway because anyone that's got a reason to be visiting the house is already known or expected, and knows enough to use the side door, which probably opens onto a landing with a few steps up into a kitchen and several steps down into an unfinished basement, and the stairs and landing are probably covered in old spotted linoleum that's coming loose just about everywhere, but we'll probably never find that part out because we use the front door.

"These front doors aren't put in for no reason," Donny says, after I suggest that maybe we should use the side door, and I wonder if he's capable of understanding just how completely wrong he is.

On the porch there's a swing and a rocking chair and a table.

The front door is crowned by a fan window with heavily beveled triangular glass panels that make me recall his statements about the grid and the sections and how, on a globe, they can never be truly square.

Donny pushes the doorbell and it works which surprises me.

I can hear a woman or maybe young woman calling out from inside, "Coming!", and I'm surprised by the urgency in her voice because it definitely does not seem likely that somebody would travel all the way out here to this house, ring the doorbell, and then quickly leave from impatience. In fact, if you come all the way out here, for whatever reason, I think you would be prepared to wait quite a long time.

Finally we can hear somebody, the young woman probably, struggling with the door. Not the locks, but the door itself seems to be heavy and possibly stuck or at least difficult to open. One final tug from inside opens it, and reveals a very pretty girl, probably about my age, in an ankle length skirt and a white blouse. She makes me think of my girlfriend, or what my girlfriend might look like if she were a virgin.

She glances at me, and then at Donny, and then at me again. Her gaze keeps shifting back to me, and there's some weird flash of recognition in the way she looks at me, but I have no idea why because I definitely do not recognize HER.

She says, "Yes?", as if it were a question, and then, "Can I help you?", which IS a question.

As I've come to expect, Donny does all the talking, and I'm wondering how that will work out once we get to the commune. Anyway, he says, "Sorry if we're intruding ma'am."

She laughs and says, "No, it's just no one hardly ever uses this door, and it always gets stuck on the carpet." I glance down at the thick pile carpeting, and understand what she means. It feels good to understand what somebody means. Since I've been with Donny, I haven't understood a whole hell of a lot. She continues, "I think the last time someone came to this door—yes, in fact I'm certain of it—was an encyclopedia salesman."

Donny gets all wide-eyed with disbelief, as if she had just told us to use an outhouse in back. He says, "An encyclopedia salesman?"

She doesn't seem to understand the reason for his surprise, and she says, "Yes, I'm pretty sure that's right, and he last came, oh let's see, that must have been at least two years ago."

She gazes off, as if pleasantly reminiscing over the encyclopedia salesman's last visit, so Donny begins again, "We're sorry to intrude ma'am, but I'm wondering if your parents might be home."

She blushes and exclaims, "Oh, of course! I guess you didn't come all the way out here to chat with ME," and she laughs.

She runs, literally runs, to what I assume is the kitchen, and less than a minute later she reappears with her father. He shakes our hands and introduces himself as "Mr. Maxwell.". He says, "And this is my daughter Tina."

Donny says, "A pleasure to meet you both."

Tina says, "Pleased to make your acquaintance," practically curtsying and I'm wondering what decade it is.

Mr. Maxwell says, "Now then, what can I do for you gentlemen?"

Donny answers, "Well sir, we're traveling, and it's getting late and we were wondering if you had space, maybe in your barn, where we could crash for the night."

Mr. Maxwell stares at us skeptically. "These days that's an unusual request. People don't feel safe anymore. You two have a lot of something even to ask. Maybe we can talk about it over dessert. The missus is serving tea and cake in the living room if you'd care to join us." He pulls at the lapel of his sport coat, revealing a holstered gun. "Now, if you two were planning anything funny, this would be a good time to leave. We appreciate honesty in these parts."

Donny says, "Nothing funny sir. We're just two travelers looking for a place to crash for the night."

Mr. Maxwell says, "Certainly is an unusual request, but who knows."

Mr. Maxwell, Tina, Donny, and I all move into the living room. Mr. Maxwell says, "Why don't you two have a seat on the couch." He and Tina sit in armchairs facing the couch, across a coffee table. Mrs. Maxwell enters with a tea tray, and Tina jumps up and runs back into the kitchen. She returns holding plates, on each of which is a slice of chocolate cake.

Mrs. Maxwell says, "I hope you boys like chocolate cake." I'm having trouble thinking of Donny as a "boy", but I notice that Tina is checking me out again, and I'm beginning to feel pretty good—sort of high, like—and I'm glad that this morning I decided to wear my new Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt, which I bought last week off the Internet using my parents' credit card. There aren't many things in life can make you feel so good as an admiring look from a pretty girl.

Donny accepts a plate, saying "We certainly do like chocolate cake," and it annoys me a little that he would speak on my behalf, since for all he knows I'm allergic to chocolate, although I did eat a chocolate bar back at the Casey's.

Mrs. Maxwell says, "Isn't it terrible, about New York?"

I have no idea what she's talking about, and wonder if there has been another terrorist attack. Donny says, "What happened in New York?"

"Oh," she says with surprise, "It was on the evening news. Some outbreak of a mysterious disease; the doctors don't know what it is. It sounds dreadful. Makes me glad I live in the country." She returns to the kitchen.

Mr. Maxwell takes a plate from his daughter, and then says to us, "So where did you say you two were traveling to?"

Donny says, "Oh, we're headed up north, to a retreat." He stumbles a little with his words, obviously not having thought much about how he should explain the survivalist commune to people who might find the whole idea a little creepy.

Mr. Maxwell asks, "What kind of a retreat?"

"Well," Donny says, "It's a place where they teach you camping, hunting, you know, outdoorsy survival type skills. But also," he hastens to add, "Indoor survivally type skills, like cooking and canning."

Tina giggles and says, "Sounds kind of like a cross between Boy Scouts camp and 4-H camp." She looks meaningfully at me when she says "4-H camp".

Donny says, "I guess it sort of is, yes."

Tina keeps looking at me like I should know her, and it's driving me nuts because she's really hot, and I've got this craving feeling that I know will either come to nothing, or else come to go good, which makes me think again of my girlfriends' abortion, and I wonder why that keeps bugging me so bad. I ask Tina, "Where do you go to school?"

She blushes, and, a little evasively, says, "Oh, well, actually I'm eighteen."

"But she was home-schooled," her father adds.

She's obviously embarrassed by this revelation. She nods at us, and rejoins her mother in the kitchen.

Mr. Maxwell watches proudly as she leaves the room, like how you'd watch a prize colt. He says, "We home-schooled her. Ever since they started consolidating school districts, the teaching's been getting worse and worse. Nowadays, home-schooling's the only way to make sure your children receive a good education. We focus on the elementals. And, most importantly, she remains pure, inviolate." He pats the left side of his chest, where his gun is holstered, and says, "We protect what we value, and we value what we protect, don't we fellas?"

Donny, apparently oblivious to any darker implications in Mr. Maxwell's statement, nods vigorously, and says, "That we do, sir."

Mr. Maxwell then says, "When Tina gets married, her husband will find that he has taken unto himself a bride of virtue unblemished." Only now do I realize that he's really, certifiably creepy. "She possesses something that today is rarer even than gold, and as valuable as such. She possesses virginity. She will have her pick of husbands."

Obviously I'm finding Mr. Maxwell to be extremely creepy. Trying to change the subject, I ask him, "So you're a farmer, Mr. Maxwell?"

He shakes his head gravely. "Would that I were. There's no nobler profession. But we lease our land to tenant farmers. I am an insurance salesman, with Country Financial."

I say, "Oh, that must be interesting," and I almost cringe over how sarcastic it must sound, though I don't intend it to be sarcastic, and he does not appear to take it that way.

He has finished his slice of cake. He sets his plate on the coffee table, and his wife quickly removes it, taking it back to the kitchen. He picks up his tea cup and begins drinking his tea. He says, "I think your journey is a noble one, and if you want, you may spend the night in our barn, just as you requested. There's no hay there, but there are actually a few cots. We keep them for when our tenant farmer and his crew work late, and have to spend the night."

Donny says, "Thank you very much sir."

"The farm crew arrives early, though, and I'm afraid they'll wake you."

"That's okay—we have to get an early start anyway."

Mr. Maxwell nods. "Well then, I think we have an understanding. If you need anything, knock on the side door. It will be locked, but we will hear you. I'll show you to the barn."

Donny and I exchange goodnights and farewells with Mrs. Maxwell and Tina. Mr. Maxwell takes us to the barn, which is aluminum sided and somewhat temperature controlled and surprisingly modern. He rolls out two cots, and says, "The sheets are clean. Is there anything else I can get you two right now?"

Donny says, "I think we're all set sir, and thank you again."

Mr. Maxwell says, "I'll say goodnight then."

He leaves and I'm relieved because he's super creepy. Donny and I undress and get into our cots, and even though it's still early, I fall right asleep.

At some point in the night I'm awakened by a gentle, almost caressing, tap on my bare shoulder. I sit up and in the darkness I see Tina. She's all dressed, as if she never even went to bed. I don't have a shirt on; I don't have anything on but my underwear. I panic, fearing that her father will have followed her out here, and that if he finds her here, with Donny and me, neither Donny nor me wearing anything but our underwear—well, it won't look good and her psycho father is going to shoot us with that gun he kept petting while we were eating cake in their living room.

She signals me to remain silent by putting her index finger to her lips, like a librarian. I'm so stunned and afraid I frankly can't think of anything else to do EXCEPT remain silent. Then she motions with her hand for me to follow her outside. I'm freaking out, and I don't know if following her outside is a better or a worse idea than remaining here. It's all boiling down to where I would rather have her father find us, because I'm feeling pretty much certain that her father IS going to find us. I hastily decide that it would be better for him to find us, both full dressed, outside the barn.

It never occurs to me that I could or should wake Donny.

I'm sort of waiting for her to leave, so that I can dress, but it becomes apparent that she isn't leaving without me, so I get out of the bed even though I'm wearing nothing but my underwear, and begin to dress. While I dress, I think with no little satisfaction that at least I look good in my underwear, and I'm actually hoping that she's able to see this, that her eyes will have adjusted enough to the darkness so that she can see how good I look. I mean, everyone wants to be appreciated, and for all I know I could be about to die when her father finds us, so it's nice to know that maybe one last person is seeing this temple of sexiness which is my body, and I almost start laughing because sometimes I actually crack myself up with my own nutty thoughts.

Outside she points to the house, and whispers, "My parents' window," which just seems kind of menacing though I'm not sure she means it to be. She then leads me behind the barn, as if she believes that, just because we can't be seen there from her parents' window, we will therefore be safe from her crazy fucking father.

As we walk towards the back of the barn, I have this feeling of dread that she's wanting to seduce me. I recall how she kept checking me out earlier in the evening. And I have this sinking feeling as I realize that, if she does try even a little bit to seduce me, that I'm not going to be able to resist her. I mean, come on, I'm eighteen years old, and here's this, I have to admit, quite beautiful and, without her clothes probably very hot, VIRGIN, and in my mind I'm imagining this virginal body which her father kept creepily alluding to, but now it's quite frankly turning me on and there's no way I'm gonna be able to say no to ANYTHING she wants me to do to her, or anything she wants to do to me. I mean, I grew up in a small town: I know how naughty some of these farm girls can be, and I'm pretty much prepared for anything as we turn the corner of the barn and enter the place where she, in her apparently virginal naïveté, thinks we will be safe from her father, and I'm actually imagining him finding us in the middle of sexual intercourse, and I'm realizing that in the event I probably wouldn't even be able to stop because I'm so turned on, and besides if he's going to kill me, I mean, are you kidding me? If I have to go, then I might as well go all the way, and there's something darkly arousing about the thought of having my brains blown at exactly the moment I climax, and I'm surprised by this thought because it's not a fantasy I had ever even imagined myself capable of enjoying, though I'm not sure enjoying is exactly the right word. It occurs to me that the realization of this evolving fantasy would result in my brains exploding all over Tina's naked body, and at first I've revolted by the thought, and then I realize that this revulsion is what I think I'm supposed to feel, and again I'm surprised by this depth of insight, as if previously hidden parts of my mind are being opened to me in this moment of crisis and it's totally fucking crazy. In short: I'm not sure if I'm not maybe a little turned on by the idea of my brains exploding all over her beautiful, naked, freshly de-virgined body.

As we turn the corner she again puts her index finger to her lips, which I think is going to be a prelude to her just silently tearing at my clothes, or maybe just slowly removing her own.

Instead, she whispers, "I want you."

Oh my god, I'm practically panting. I say, "I want you too." I want not to want her, or at least not to say that I want her. I want for this not to happen because it seems like certain death, but there's just no way I'm gonna be able to say no to her.

She says, "Do you remember me?"

I'm not prepared for this question, especially since the answer is "no", but I say, "Yeah, I think so," and I wish I hadn't added that "I think so", but it's sort of a safety catch in case she asks for specifics.

She says, "At the county fair?"

I say, "Yes," practically panting it out.

"I thought maybe you never noticed me."

I'm in full deception mode now. I hate myself for it, but I really want to get her shirt off. I say, "How could I not notice you. You're so beautiful. You were the most beautiful girl there."

She seems pleased by that answer. She says, "I want to go with you and your friend."

I say, again lying because I know there's absolutely no way her father's letting her leave this farm with us—I say, "Okay," because I assume it's a condition to letting me fuck her, and again I hate myself for lying, but I'm practically exploding in my pants as it is, and something has got to give, and unfortunately in this case that something is the truth.

She says, "I've left a note for my parents. I'm eighteen; I'm an adult. I have a right to leave this farm."

That's kind of freaking me out, and taking some of the edge off my arousal, because I'm imagining her father reading the note like right now.

She continues, "But I think we should leave as quickly as possible."

I'm thinking, oh fuck, she's serious, and I'm realizing we don't have much choice, that either she's going with us, or her crazy father is going to find the note and kill us for any number of reasons he's likely to dream up in his paranoid mind.

As if sensing my reluctance, and the evaporation of my arousal, she says, "I want you so bad. I want you to take me," and I'm again thinking it's going to happen and that I won't be able to stop it and it's going to feel so good.

I say, "I want you too. I want you so bad."

"But we have to leave here. It can't happens here. It's too dangerous. Take me with you. My suitcase is by your car. I'm ready now."

Obviously the time for thinking is over: I want to fuck her, and I'm terrified of what will happen if her father finds the note and then finds her suitcase and then finds us huddled together behind the barn. I say, "Okay," and then I rush back inside the barn, wake Donny, tell him we have to leave immediately, and he tries to argue a little and I tell him that he isn't even going to survive the night, much less the end of the world, if he keeps it up. When he finds out she's coming with, he says, "Are you insane?" And I simply explain what she has done, and to his credit he grasps the impossibility of the situation immediately, only his response is even more human than mine, since he says, "Christ, her father will kill her or worse if we don't take her with us. When he finds out what she has tried to do." So we all three get into the car, and as quietly as possible Donny backs it out of the long driveway, and once we're on the road he slowly drives away from the house until we're about half a mile away and then he floors it and we're racing at least ninety miles an hour and we finally say goodbye to McLean County and I guess to the McLean County Fair Queen too, but now I got Tina.

---

We race out of McLean County. Tina's in the front seat; I'm in the back. Donny is driving. I'm lying clear across the back seat, half asleep, but I imagine that I hear a door slamming shut behind me, and not in a good way either, not like a door separating me from danger, from Tina's psycho father for example, who has probably called out the city police and the county sheriff and the Sons of the American Revolution and the Ku Klux Klan and god knows what else. No, the door slamming shut behind me is the sound of imprisonment: it sounds like a thick gun-metal green cast iron prison door slamming shut, and I feel imprisoned and I don't know why.

I try to shake it off, take my mind off the thought by swallowing a few med samples my doctor gave me. Whenever I feel down, I think about my doctor, how he hands me these samples and always says the exact same thing: "Try these, Jeremy; I think they'll help, and if they don't then call back in a week. We'll get you sorted out." Then he puts his hands on my shoulder blades as he guides me to the receptionist's desk, and there's always so much optimism in his voice. Unending optimism. And I feel like he really cares about ME, like he's doing his best to get me straightened out because he wants nothing but the best for me, and I'm going to miss that. He's the only one who ever gave me that feeling. I hate to think that, by running off, I might be letting him down. He was a good old guy, though, and I think he'll understand that I did what I thought I needed to do.

I look at Tina, and instantly I'm filled with lust. Lust strikes so fast. And by "fast" I mean something along the lines of Sagat's classic Ground Tiger Shot (never improved upon, in my opinion): even when you see it coming, there's not much you can do to stop it. I'm really lusting for Tina. I guess that's wrong of me to say; you're not supposed to talk that way about women, and I get that, and I'm all about that—like I think I said before, I'm a feminist and a huge supporter of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, and I think it was really awesome what Patricia Arquette said at the Academy Awards, and nobody hates Donald Trump more than me—him and his douchebag son and spoiled rich bitch daughter and her eunuch husband—but I can't stop looking at Tina and thinking about having sex with her. I cannot control my thoughts. I know what I'm supposed to think, and I do and say what I'm supposed to think, but I simply cannot make myself think what I'm supposed to think. At least I hate myself for it, which ought to count for something. I want to not love women for their bodies, I want to love them only for their minds, but I don't know how to make that happen. I think what bothers me most about my lust for Tina is that she's not even trying to look sexy, at least she's not dressed that way and she's not even wearing any makeup. But still I want her. She's sexy in this completely pure way. Not pure in a moral sense, although apparently she is that as well, but pure in this other, purely physical, natural way that I don't know how to describe. Sort of like these people who will eat a good steak, without any additives or preservatives or hormones or antibiotics, and they don't want it seasoned at all—I mean, they don't even want any A-1 sauce or ketchup or anything: just a plain, medium-rare steak, and to them that's more desirable than a sizzling steak fajita from Applebee's. I'm beginning to understand that, and to feel that way about Tina.

Donny hands me a large sheet of paper, which is divided into square blocks, with squiggly blue lines of varying thickness running across the whole thing.

I ask, "What's this supposed to be?"

Tina turns around and says, "Here, let me see it." For a moment our eyes meet and it feels like when your wifi connection jumps from zero to the maximum decibel milliwatts allowed by law. I means, it's like I'm downloading pure life at 1.5 terabytes per second.

She blushes, which makes me hope she's feeling it too. She takes the sheet of paper from me, and our hands touch and if I could I would do backflips. Man, her skin is so soft and beautiful, and her nails are short and pink—natural pink, like clean, pink skin; not painted pink, like my girlfriend does hers which is starting to seem kind of slutty to me. Almost everything about my girlfriend is starting to seem slutty to me.

Tina examines the paper, and says, "It looks like a map."

She gives it back to me, and I eventually perceive that the squiggly blue lines are creeks and rivers, and that yes indeed the sheet of paper is a map, but I'm like, "What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?"

Donny says, "From here on out, you're the navigator baby."

"This is some map, boy, if it's a map to plan a car trip by," I say. "Where are the roads; where are the towns?"

"How many times do I gotta tell you, Jeremy: we're on our dress rehearsal: we're rebuilding from the ground up. Elemental. Make it your mantra: elemental, elemental, elemental."

"Christ," I say, and then I apologize because I realize Tina is religious or at least she was raised that way and she might be offended by my taking the Lord's name in vain.

She glances back at me, and I'm getting a strong read of understanding and compassion from her. Maybe I'm just imagining it, but I don't think so. Then she says to Donny, "Isn't Jeremy sort of right, though?"

There's really nothing she could have said at that moment that would give me greater happiness. I'm loving the way it feels: us versus him. Not that I got anything personal against Donny. Quite the opposite in fact. He sort of rescued me from what was left of my pathetic life in Arcola. But I don't want him interfering with Tina and me. Tina and me, we're connected now; I can feel it. It's like when you finally work up enough nerve to send a friend request to a girl you've had a crush on for a few weeks, and then she accepts it two minutes later. You know? It feels that good, and I don't want Donny ruining that, whether on purpose or not.

Donny, playing it real cool—he can be such a cool, smooth son-of-a-bitch sometimes, and I'm realizing that I'm sometimes jealous of how in control he always seems, and I'm finally starting to understand how completely out of control I am, and honestly it kind of scares me because it might scare Tina—Donny answers Tina by simply saying, "How so?"

"Well," she says, "If our goal is to get elemental, then why does this thing even have grid lines? Why not just a topographical map?"

His answer is classic Donny: "Because then we would have nothing but nature."

"Wouldn't that be a good thing," Tina asks. "Isn't nature a good thing?"

"Nature is neither good nor bad. Nature is amoral, and for that reason it is to be feared."

Tina does not respond, which seems wise if you ask me.

Donny says, "When this state was first settled, the upland prairies were just about the last places the pioneers explored, and do you know why?"

Tina says, "Sure, everybody knows that: it's because until John Deere invented the stainless steele plow, nobody knew how to break the sod and till the land."

"Well," Donny says, "That is what they teach in school, because it sounds reasonable, and teachers hate anything that defies reason: they're always ascribing a rational explanation to irrationl actions. What do you think, the pioneers were busting sod and planting corn down in the river bottoms and out in the timber? Gimme a break. The reason they didn't settle the upland prairies is because untamed prairie is terrifying. It contains few if any natural landmarks; everything is the same: horrifying flatness and endless tallgrass in every direction. It wasn't until they were able to construct split rail fences, which essentially inscribed onto the land the very grid system that Thomas Jefferson had theorized decades earier—it wasn't until then that people really began settling these upland prairie regions. Reason conquered one of nature's most horrific wildernesses. Even after the invention of the stainless steele plow, and the construction of split rail fences, do you have any idea how many people lost their minds living out here? I mean literally lost their minds, as in they went bat-shit crazy."

I'm wondering if that last part about going crazy is supposed to be a warning to me. Maybe he thinks I can't hack it; maybe he thinks I'll go crazy before we reach the survivalist commune. I don't want him to realize he has managed to touch me, so I just play dumb and say, "I don't get it, now I'm just not getting this at all."

"Remove the gridlines, Jeremy, and it's back to savagery. When I say 'elemental', I mean the elements of civilization. We're going to rebuild civilization, but we're keeping the elemental remnants, the useful parts. In this particular case, it's the gridlines. This isn't some nature expedition. We need the elements of civilization to restructure, going forward. The grid protects us from savagery, just as our names do. Sure, we all long to remove the grid, get back to nature, but it would be the end of us; worse than the end, it would be savagery: nothingness. Unless we could replace it with something else."

I balk again, trying, maybe, to make Tina take my side again: "I got an idea: why not replace the gridlines with roads—the road system seems far more useful a remnant than these grid lines."

Donny comes back immediately with, "Roads crumble, and when the government collapses and there's nobody to repair them, the roads will disappear too. The meridians and the baselines, however, that form the grid—the land survey—that's permament and that's what we're taking forward with us."

Tina says, "But the grid, the land survey, isn't really real. How can something be permanent that's not actually real?"

"It's permanent because it exists in our minds, and what exists there is safe from neglect or depredation. But you're correct to observe that it's a fine line we're walking: we depend on these unreal things, to know, to organize our thoughts. Take for example Cahokia. Jeremy and I were talking about Cahokia yesterday. We call it Cahokia so that we can know it, but there's no real connection between the name and the thing: it isn't really Cahokia—nobody knows what it really was called, or what it really WAS period, but there it is: we still call it Cahokia. Or take Jeremy here: his name's 'Jeremy Renner', but he isn't actually Jeremy Renner."

"Why isn't he Jeremy Renner? That's who he says he is. Who is he if he's not really Jeremy Renner?"

Obviously she has no idea about Jeremy Renner the movie star. Instead of trying to explain it to her, Donny just says, "Well, maybe that was a bad example," and then shifts gears, completely unfazed by any of our confusion: "Now you kids got a lot to learn, and not much time to learn it, I'm afraid. How can I compress it all? Well, first you need to know where we are, where we REALLY are. You probably learned a lot in school." He stops, and then kind of awkwardly adds, "And of course Tina your parents probably taught you a lot, just like in school." Then he seems pretty embarrassed, so I guess he just decides to skip the details of what's school and what isn't. "But let me sum up the history of the world, the only history of the world that MATTERS anymore, in this way: say the world is like a body, and we humans are living off of it. At the very beginning of the world, it's virginal, undefiled."

I'm squirming a little, because I'm wondering if he realizes that he's practically quoting what Mr. Maxwell said about Tina, and I'm wondering if Tina is offended or embarrassed or just really weirded out.

But he continues, and thankfully takes his analogy in a different, though just as creepy and possibly even creepier, direction: "Now, humans had been slowly eating their way through the fat for thousands of years..."

Honestly, I can't even follow this whacked out digression. I'm just like, Jesus Christ what the fuck.

Tina's clearly smarter than I thought, and she seems to be following, and even following with interest, because she says, "I guess it's going to be a blank pad at some point. I thank the Lord for you two rescuing me. It's already like that blank pad for me now. No history, no tradition. Just elemental, I guess, like you said. A fresh start, a blank pad."

I have no idea what the fuck she's talking about with that blank pad business, and I'm not real thrilled with the way she has embraced the whole 'elemental' thing. And unfortunately, she's staring at Donny and not me, and she keeps staring at him, like maybe she's really into him which is most definitely causing my anxiety to amp up.

I can tell that Donny is into her too, if only because she's such an eager listener, but the fact that she's hot surely doesn't hurt. She is looking at him, and occasionally he looks at her and I am starting to burn with jealousy just wondering if their eyes are meeting, and if he's getting that same charge as me, and honestly it almost feels like something that is in her power to bestow, this charge, and I can't help but feel betrayed at the idea that she might bestow that charge on him too, and here all this based on paranoid speculation because I can't really even see if they are making eye contact, and maybe so what if they are—a lot of people do and it doesn't mean they're in love.

He starts talking about John Bardeen and the University of Illinois and the Roswell UFO crash and what he claims was a government coverup: "The transistor and the theory of superconductivity, for which Bardeen won a Nobel Prize—that all came out of technology retrieved from the UFO that crashed at Roswell. Bardeen and his team at Bell Laboratories, which just happened to be an important defense contractor, they supposedly invented the transistor within months of the military's UFO salvage operation outside Roswell. You think that's just a coincidence? And you think it's just a coincidence that Bardeen then went to University of Illinois? Do you have any idea how many secret FEMA prisoner camps are operating in the State of Illinois right now?" I actually have no idea what the hell he's saying, because I'm starting to think about my phone and how much I'd really like to get the new iPhone 8 when it comes out this September.

Then I guess I fall asleep and I dream:

It's the future and I'm older, maybe thirty, maybe forty—I don't really know. Just older but not old. What I know is that I'm an adult and adulthood is not what I ever imagined it would be. I'm alone, and the main theme in my adulthood is fear. Not, not fear but—well, yes, fear—but fear of invisible things: fear of germs; fear of disease; fear of people's thoughts and their intentions; fear not of what people say but of what I think they mean by what they say; fear of failure, even though I'm already a failure: fear of worse failure; the real failure bothers me less than future, imagined failures. In adulthood, I am slowly destroying my body, even by the ways in which I try to help it. The medications I take for my mind are causing me to lose my mind, my memories, my feelings; the dentist tells me that my obsessive tooth brushing is destroying my teeth, scrubbing away my gums and my tooth enamel. My obsessive hand washing, and my obsessive house cleaning with Clorox and Lysol and every possible detergent and disinfectant. In this adulthood, Tina is there, and we are married, but my fear of hurting her feelings is causing her to despise me. I'm alone even though I am married to Tina. My parents are there, and they're there and there and there and everywhere, suffocating me with unwanted advice and observations, their disapproval of Tina and their disappointment in me. Every family holiday is a reeling blast of hellfire, dizzying, stifling, in the future...Then it's some other time, or maybe the same time: I'm covered in this rash, but it's strange because the rash is around me—in the air surrounding me, not on me, not on my skin, but touching my skin. Donny is there. He's wearing a cowboy hat and he's in the Army Medical Corps. Seriously bizarre, but hey, it's a dream. He wants to give me a shot, and the weird thing is that the syringe is loaded into something that looks kind of like a pistol. I'm about to let him give me this shot, and he's saying it will cure the rash, but I ask him why a shot, since the rash is not on me, but around me. I suggest that Lysol would work better. He tells me that what's inside me projects itself onto my environment, that it doesn't just give tone to my environment, as some say, but quality. The rash is an effect of what's inside. He says I have to cure what's inside of me in order to cure what's around me. Then he says to me, 'This rash, Jeremy, it's a veil concealing your secrets, what you want that you don't want people to know you want. You want what you don't want to want. Do you hear that? When I give you this shot, that rash will disappear and you will dissolve; you will cease to itch but you will also cease to exist. Tina and I, we talked it over: we think it's for the best. However, we're gonna stay on this side of the grid, but will be cleaving close to it. Maybe we will sense you; maybe you'll sense us.' He gives me the injection and then I silently disappear while imagining that I'm shouting 'No' in protest. Then I wake up and I take two Vraylar.

I'm thinking about Tina some more. She seems smart. Definitely smarter than my girlfriend. I almost said "other girlfriend". I wonder how you break up with somebody you might never see again. If I could get my phone charged, I could send her a text message. I want to make Tina my girlfriend. She seems smart and nice. She probably reads a lot of books. Donny probably does too. God, I hope she doesn't fall for him. But she came to me that night, LAST night, and my god it was like the Mortal Kombat Heart Rip, or maybe even Sub-Zero's awesome Spinal Rip. Or maybe she did that beause she recognized my weakness, maybe she thought I would be the most persuadable. And yet earlier that evening didn't she say she thought she knew me from someplace before? I like to think she really did, and maybe I'll soon remember where and when we knew each other before.

We have arrived at another town. I hear Donny telling Tina, "...and people are already on the move, legions of them: good people, bad people, people of unknown characer. Which kind of people are we? We're the good people, let's hope. There'll be a war eventually, and that's why it's so important that we hook up with the other good people as soon as possible. Because otherwise, these other people: what do they know that we do not"

Donny stops at yet another Casey's, this time to fuel up. I decide to go inside and get some snacks. Donny and I both agree that Tina should probably wait in the car, on account of her father has probably reported her missing or abducted, though I don't quite understand how that would work if she really is eighteen. Donny says to me, "Hey, don't pussy foot around in there—we need to get moving."

Inside, I see that the cashier is on the phone, not paying any attention to me, and I take this as a good sign. I can hear her talking, but she just keeps saying, "Uh-huh; uh-huh; okay; uh-huh; yep," then she says, "Got it; uh-huh; off his meds...he made his girlfriend do what? An abortion? Jesus Christ. What a monster. How old did you say again? Uh-huh. Okay. Six two, blonde hair, blue eyes, thin but muscular build..."

I don't wait for the end of the conversation, since she's obviously talking to somebody about me, which isn't exactly surprising, but what IS surprising is that she's taking down information that could not possibly have come from Tina's father, so I'm wondering what the fuck my parents did with that letter I left them. I'm an ADULT for Christ's sake. I duck into a video gaming room for a chance to think. All but one of the machines are in use, so I sit down at the open machine. I put a dollar into the machine, which I really do not want to do because I have very few dollars left, but I need a chance to think. Unfortunately, all I can think about is whether the rest of my life is going to be about gas stations, truck stops, video gaming parlors, convenience stores, sweaty hot dogs dropping from basket to basket in a carousel that revolves around a heat lamp, mega gulp styrofoam Pepsi cups...and I guess I'm feeling trapped because mainly I'm wondering how one sneaks out of a gas station.

---

I'm staring at the screen of a video slot machine. A half naked computer animated woman is smiling at me; her name is Cherry Angel. Cherry Angel causes me to have lustful thoughts, which I try to resist because I'm in love with Tina, but there's something about Cherry Angel—she has that look about her, that "I want nothing more in life than to please you" look. I feel creepy sitting here thinking lustful thoughts with three other people in the room. Like me they're all just staring into their own screens, and I don't know if we're all pretending no one else is here, or if they're all actually that absorbed in their games. I'm also wondering what the hell they're doing in here on such a nice, sunny, summer day. I mean, I KNOW what I'm doing here: I'm hiding from the woman at the cash register. But why the hell are they here?

The words "Be My Cherry Master" run across the top of the screen, and Cherry Angel winks at me.

Somebody touches me on the shoulder and it startles me. It's Donny. I'm surprised I didn't hear him enter the room. Impatiently, he says "What the hell are you doing? We gotta get moving."

I shush him and then gesture towards the door of the gaming room. Donny follows me out of the gaming room and into the bathroom.

I tell him about the cashier, how she was talking to somebody on the phone about me, how the cops are looking for me.

Donny barely even responds to this information, but simply leaves the bathroom, and I peak my head out the door to hear what he's gonna do. He walks right up to the cashier, and I almost freak out because he says to her, "My son came in here a few minutes ago, but never came back out. You seen him?"

"Depends. What's he look like?"

Donny proceeds to describe me—he does a pretty good job too, I have to give him credit, but it's totally insane because what he describes is exactly the person the cops told her to watch for, except that in his version I'm sixteen instead of eighteen.

The cashier says, "Didn't see him. Strange, though, 'cause I was just on the phone with sheriff's deputy, and they're looking for somebody looks just like your son. This other kid's eighteen though."

"Well," Donny says, so fucking cocksure, "They might as well be looking for my son anyway—god knows he's done plenty," and he laughs, and she laughs too. Then he says, "Teenage boys all look the same these days anyway."

She says, "They all look the same and they all look like slobs. Y'ask me, it's all this rap music they listen to. Crying shame."

He ignores her theory on the influence of rap music, and says, "My son, it's too much for him even to put a comb through his hair," which I take as a cue to muss up my hair.

There's a pause, and she says, a little suspiciously, "You look kinda young to have a teenager."

Donny laughs—so goddamned cool—and says, "I got started kinda young. The right woman can do that, you know. Just slay you. There's no two ways about it. That was my story."

She laughs, a smoker's laugh—real husky and raspy. She says, "The little s.o.b. probably snuck into the gaming room. Get him outta there, will ya?"

"Done," he says, and then returns to the bathroom.

Back inside the bathroom, I say "Are you insane! Now she's gonna know for sure that I'm the person they're looking for."

"You don't get the sketch, Jeremy: drawing attention to yourself is the whole point—any magician will tell you that. Any magician or con artist. Surely you know about the Jedi mind trick? What else do you think that is? If you say something with enough conviction, people will believe you."

"Are you even old enough to be my father?"

"That's the beauty of it: the more improbable, the better. Didn't your parents ever take you to church? It's practically a universal truth that the more impossible something is to believe, the more eagerly people will believe it. Bet you anything, right now she's thinking, even if only subconsciously, 'Surely he wouldn't be dumb enough to invent a lie like that'. Now, here's what we're gonna do: you get yourself a soda, then bring it to the counter and apologize to the lady for sneaking into the gaming room."

"And give her a chance to ID me up close? No way."

He shakes his head, "That's the whole point: give her all the time she wants to see you; show her you got nothing to hide, even though you got everything to hide, apparently."

We leave the bathroom. He says, "Get yourself a soda, son."

Over at the soda fountain, I'm excited because they have two soda machines: one for Pepsi products, and one for Coke products, which presents me with the opportunity for a double suicide. I grab a big gulp styrofoam cup—these big gulp cups always remind me of my mother's fat friends, because a big gulp cup will be real wide at the top, and then taper down to a narrow bottom, narrow enough to fit into a car's drink holder, and my mom's friends are shaped the same way: they're fat on top, and then they always wear these stirrup leggings to show off their thin ankles. Anyway, I fill my cup with some of each soda from the two fountains. Then I hurry over to the cash register just like Donny told me to do.

As I approach the counter, he's saying to the woman, "Gimme a pack of reds," and I'm surprised because in the short time we've been together, he has never smoked and his car does not smell like a smoker's car. Then he says, "And a bottle of yellow jackets."

She puts a pack of Marlborough Reds on the counter, along with a bottle of yellow jackets, which I thought were actually illegal.

I set my drink on the counter, and Donny puts his hand on my shoulder and says, "Now son, what do you have to say to this lady?"

"I'm sorry ma'am for sneaking into the gaming room."

Now she can hardly be nicer—nothing at all like the disapproving old hag I heard talking on the telephone earlier. She says, "Well that's okay. Won't be long you can go in. But I'd get in hot water my boss found you in there. And the police are already after some kid looks just like you. Only he's eighteen, but when they find him, boy, I hope they throw the book at him. It's disgusting what he done, just absolutely horrible."

I thank her for accepting my apology, but all the while I'm really just confused, and I'm wondering what I supposedly did that got the law after me. I consider asking her, but I know Donny likes to be running the show.

We leave the convenience store. I ask Donny, "Do you smoke?"

"Nope."

"Then how come you bought cigarettes?"

"Because the old broad obviously smokes, and smokers warm up faster to other smokers. It'll be a while before she starts thinking again about the possibility that you and I are on the lam."

"But I'm not on the lam."

"The police think you are; same difference."

"But I don't even know what I'm supposed to have done. I don't know what I'm guilty of."

"We're ALL guilty, man. Don't worry about it. In this cluster-fuck of a society, we're all guilty even before we do anything. Christ, even before we're born. That's how come these bastards in Washington have to keep making laws, year in and year out: endlessly creating new laws so that eventually we'll all be guilty of something, we'll all be caught in their goddamned net of laws. Now, in the new society we're gonna build once we get to the commune, we'll only have laws that are absolutely necessary, and once we've made those laws we won't make any more."

Back inside the car, Tina asks me why my hair is messed up.

Before I can answer, Donny says, "We're officially on the run from the law, kids. First chance we get, after we've blown this town, I need to stop and change the license plates. Jeremy here apparently did something awfully naughty back in Arcola."

Tina looks at me; she looks concerned; she says, "What did you do?"

"I don't even know! Christ! Sorry, but Christ. I didn't do anything, not against the law anyway."

She's quiet for a moment, which worries me. She says, "I believe you." Then she asks, as if to show that she has already forgotten about it, "What'd you get to drink?"

"It's a double suicide."

"Did you include the diet options?"

"No way."

"Then it's not a real suicide. Suicide has to have at least some of everything."

"How do you even know what a suicide is? I thought you were home schooled."

She laughs; her laugh is so adorably relaxed, unafraid. I want to kiss her. She says, "Just because you're home schooled doesn't mean you never leave home. Plus my parents didn't take me out of school until the sixth grade—that's when the school started teaching sex ed. Before that I had regular friends, just like you. We used to get suicides at the gas station."

Donny begins on one of his paranoid jags, this one about Air Mobility Command and irregularities in the budget for Scott Air Force Base and FEMA camps and so on. A few miles later, he turns onto a gravel road. A jog in the road and the high corn create a blind where he can change the license plates without being seen from the highway. I'm a little surprised that he has alternate license plates, but the longer I'm on this trip with him, the less things like that are surprising me, and it actually feels kind of good. Why shouldn't life be surprising? Who says it has to be boring?

While we're waiting, Tina says to me, "It's crazy what happened back there at the gas station. I figured it'd be me the cops came for. You really have no idea why they're after you?"

"I really don't. And anyway, you know, I want you to have a good impression of me."

She touches my knee, briefly but it feels electrifying. She says, "I do have a good impression of you. Gosh, I would have thought I made that pretty clear last night," and then she laughs, only this time it's an embarrassed laugh, almost shy. She makes me feel like I want to be close to her; not that I want to be, but that I CAN be close to her, that I can trust her.

"Well," I say, "I guess I've done a few things I'm not real proud of."

"Like what," she asks, but not in a prying way; it just naturally seems to follow what I've already said.

I say, "That's just it: the last thing I want is for you to find out."

"Maybe these things aren't as bad as you think. Maybe they're not even real. Sometimes people imagine things are far worse than they are, and sometimes people even imagine that things are what they actually are not. But either way, these are your experiences. You should do with them as you please. Share them or don't share them. But you know you really shouldn't tease people with them."

I'm sort of in awe of her. She has this simple strength and self assurance and good sense. Very straight forward and strong, like a three legged stool. She makes it seem easy; she makes happiness and self-confidence and life seem easy. She's, like, the exact opposite of my girlfriend, who's always wanting something from me. If my girlfriend thought I was keeping information from her, she would extract it like a goddamned dentist pulling a wisdom tooth. And here's Tina: no pressure whatsoever. Sure, maybe it's an instance of this reverse psychology that Donny was talking about, but it doesn't feel that way. It feels natural, and she makes ME feel natural.

I say, "Well, for example, I got my girlfriend pregnant, and she wanted to get married and start a family, but I didn't want to start a family, at least not with her, so she said that if I wouldn't marry her then she would get an abortion and I would have to pay for it. So I did pay for it, and afterwards she said it was a boy, and that they used a vacuum cleaner to suck it right out of her, and she was weeping and sobbing, and she said I had forced her to have an abortion, which isn't even true, but it is true that I paid for her to have an abortion. I guess you probably think that's really terrible. You probably think I should have married her."

She says, very matter of factly, "Not at all. You did what you thought was the right thing. And anyway you shouldn't start a family just because you accidentally got your sweetheart pregnant. That's probably one of the worst reasons to get married."

Donny gets back in the car and says, as if we've been thinking about him this whole time, he says, "That ought to hold us for a while, but we definitely need new wheels, and we're gonna have to change course. Unfortunately, we told Tina's father that we were headed north, so we gotta turn south for a while, at least until we find a new vehicle. Then we can make a bolt north for the commune."

We drive in silence for a long time. We're driving south and west; we're watching the sun descend from the sky.

Donny says, "I hope you kids appreciate all this," and he gestures towards the high corn that borders the road on either side; it creates a kind of corridor through which we seem to be driving.

I say, "What's there to appreciate?"

"What you have here, Jeremy, is peace, concentration, living meditation. Don't talk, don't think, just let your self sink deeper into yourself. Or you can have concentration with exhilaration," and he steps on the gas pedal until we must be gong at least ninety, then he slows back down. "Either way," he continues, "It helps you to become more you: to intensify that strange, intangible thing we call our SELVES. Drink it up, explore its depths—it's the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. Can you feel it? We're stars shooting between the two great imperial cities of North American history, and most people don't even know it. A lot of assholes call this 'fly-over country', because they're idiots. We are in the psychic void at the center of this nation; we are inside the 'is not' which reassures the rest of the country that it 'is'. Radical negation. Radical in almost every way. The solitude available to us here, it is completely unique, by which I mean unique, and radical. It's pure. It's as if your mind and your soul were dipped in an acid bath, and it came out as clean and new as possible in this life. What you have here, you've transcended nature without resorting to the city. It's simply nothing less than remarkable."

When he goes off on these monologues, I wonder if he's having a manic episode; I wonder if he's maybe bipolar. I ask him, "Donny, where the heck are you from originally?"

He breezily dismisses my question by saying, "Oh, all over the place. But I wish I were from here."

It's getting dark, and we're in Logan County. The wind starts blowing in gusts over the corn, which means a storm could be headed this way.

Traffic increases.

I see, in the distance, a carnival, probably a county fair.

Donny says, "Okay guys, we're going to a fair."

Tina questions whether that's a good idea. "I mean," she says, "Won't there be a lot of people there, many of whom will probably have heard about Jeremy."

Donny dismisses her concern: "We need new wheels, and a county fair is the absolute best place to find them. Plus people won't be looking at us. When you go to a fair you're looking at everything but the people. That's the whole point of a fair."

I'm not so sure of his logic here, but the idea of spending some time at a fair sounds pretty good to me.

Once inside the fairgrounds, we park on a grassy field with at least a hundred other cars, and Donny tells Tina and me to go look around: "Come back in an hour."

Tina and I visit some of the exhibit halls.

I see an attraction on the midway called "The Chapel of Love". It has about a dozen different signs, switching on and off:

Marry your sweetheart
Shotgun weddings
Get hitched quick
Chapel of love
Take the plunge
Rings, photographs, and certificates
Choose your wedding
Wild west
Victorian
Medieval
Pilgrim wedding
Indian wedding
Church
Courthouse
Vegas
Costumes
Chapel of love
Marry your sweetheart
Shotgun weddings

I point to the Chapel of Love, and say to Tina, "Hey, look: we should get married!" Half in jest, but half seriously.

She says, "Okay, why not." She laughs, "We're fugitives from justice anyway! Plus if you marry me, then I can't be forced to testify against you!"

It's all sort of a lark, a joke, but the joke is like window sheers that breezily cover a window: they cover the window, but not really, not completely, so that the light and the truth still get through. I sense that we each have our reasons, her and me, she and I, whatever you're supposed to say. I want to start talking right, because she does. I want to be worthy of her. We each have our reasons for wanting this, this marriage. And we're not even entirely sure what those reasons are, but they are very different, hers from mine, and mine from hers. Still, the reasons converge on the same object, which is that Chapel of Love blinking at us from across the midway, and she and I, now we're holding hands walking towards it in silence, and I wonder what she's thinking and I bet she's wondering what I am too.

---

So we get married, and it costs us six tickets.

Afterwards we decide to ride the ferris wheel, which at first I think sounds like a nice idea, kind of romantic, but once we're on it, all I will be able to think about are those gas station hot dog carousels, with the hot dogs dropping from basket to basket as they ride the carousel .

We then wandered some more around the fairgrounds, only now as husband and wife.

After an hour, just like Donny instructed, we met him back at his SUV. He walked us to our new car, which was a Toyota Camry.

He will gave each of us a yellow jacket: "Swallow this. Keep awake. Watch the sky."

We left the fairgrounds in the Camry, and started back north.

In the countryside, riding between the cornfields, it was very dark. About an hour out, we started seeing crazy shit in the sky, bright lights in the sky. Freaky shit. Totally fucked up shit. I can't even describe it, but Christ.

Donny just said, "St. Clair triangle. That's how they deny it."

"They?"

He stared at me as if I must be a moron. "Yeah, they." He then said, "Hey," and nothing else.

I said, "Hey what?"

He just said "Hey" again, so I dropped it.

We stopped at a motor court. Outside the car, I couldn't believe how loud the cicadas were. The whole world was filled with their chirping, was alive with it, like it had been charged with humming electricity.

Donny got us two cabins, but I went into Tina's with her. Donny didn't say anything. Maybe he saw the wedding rings on our fingers; maybe he just didn't care. He had started to seem detached.

Tina and I had sex, like newlyweds are supposed to do.

It turned out Tina wasn't even a virgin like her father claimed, not that I cared, but it was pretty surprising—the stuff she did—the stuff she knew how to do—it blew my mind away, it all felt so good. It was pretty amazing to feel that good. Maybe it was the pills Donny had given me, jacking with my head.

I hinted that I thought maybe she wasn't a virgin, and she confessed that, during the day, when her father had been in town at work, and her mother was watching television, she had been learning all this stuff from the farmhands who worked on her parents' farm.

She wasn't the only one who had lied, though. I had lied as well. Not only was she not a virgin, but I actually was.

All that stuff I had told her and Donny about getting my girlfriend pregnant—that was a lie. My girlfriend did get pregnant, but not by me. And she did demand that I marry her, and I did refuse, and I did pay for her abortion, but the baby wasn't mine.

My girlfriend—I'm sorry but she was such a fucking cunt—I see that now—she would never let me make it with her. She claimed to be saving herself for marriage. Then, one weekend, she went with some of her friends to a party. I wasn't invited. This really cool guy from our school, very popular guy, he was at the party too, and she was really drunk and she let him make it with her. I don't know what she was thinking. I guess maybe she thought he would date her, but he wouldn't. Then when she found out she was pregnant I think she thought he would date her, but he still wouldn't. So she told me that if I didn't say the baby was mine, she would tell people I was a virgin. It was a raw deal, but what choice did I have? So I agreed that the baby was mine, and then she wanted me to marry her and raise the baby. I think she probably thought she could one day get Todd—that was the popular guy who was the real father—I think she thought that if she had his baby she might still one day be able to get him back, even though she never had him in the first place. But I told her I wouldn't marry her, and she said I had to pay for the abortion, and then she started telling people about the abortion, so that to most of the town, I was the one got her pregnant, and I made her get an abortion.

Most of the stuff I told Donny, about fucking Champaign housewives—I got that stuff from watching porn. I was a virgin in body, but my head was more utterly degraded than the biggest sex addict.