Prologue: The Man Who Drives
How far can you go on a full tank of gas?
Johne Atticus Hawthorne had started pondering the answer to that tricky question after the third hour of his trip. There were many factors to consider. There was his car, a bright red fifties convertible with chrome trim, one once belonging to a long forgotten senator. It was the one thing of real value he had in his life, so along with the clothes on his back, it was all he brought with him.
Another thing was terrain. Straight. Flat. Smooth. The right kind of ride for the right kind of car. Makes it so you're flying through the night. Not like in the strangling city of hours past. In that place there were turns everywhere, stops and starts. People. Yes, driving along through the desert, there was only the sight of a scant cactus poking up here and there, not stop lights and pedestrians. In fact, he hadn't seen another soul for almost half an hour.
And that was the last factor—speed. Ever since the people left, his foot had been quietly resting down on the gas without falter. The speedometer said it could go to a hundred, but all he could get it to was seventy. Even with his leg tense, all the force he could supply on it pushing down on the pedal, almost so that his foot tore through the bottom of the floor, the damn thing wouldn't go any faster. He'd have to be content with what he had. He usually did have to be with most everything.
One hand on the wheel, an arm lazily hanging on the car door, Johne wondered about a lot of things. Why he was born with brown eyes and not blue. Why his hair was black and not blond. How come he was five-foot ten instead of a nice even six. Why he couldn't throw a football. Why he couldn't solve an algebraic equation. Why he could write music, but not sing or play it. Why he was even alive.
His other foot itched as his wonderings brought him further. If it were to slam down on the brake in that moment, would his body fling out the car window? Would he break through the glass and fly into the night's air at seventy-miles per hour? Would he die instantly? Would he scream when the flesh on his face was torn away sliding across the tar? Agonize as his arm popped out of its socket? Leaning forward, hand tightened on its grasp, he so wanted to find out the answers to those particular questions, but couldn't bring the foot up. The damned thing was too heavy.
So he was left without any answer at all, left feeling weak that he couldn't live out his questions. And without them, others had to come back to him—he had nothing else to do, they just floated in. He wanted peace, wanted nothing more than the wind to brush through his hair. Lean back, shut his eyes...breathe. Simple. Easy.
What would happen if people saw you as the person you wanted to be? Not the person you're stuck with, but the one you always dreamed about. The one you're supposed to be, the one who was able to say they made their dreams a reality. That they did something, were somebody. Better yet, getting people to see you the way they want you to be. Then you would never disappoint them with how you really are.
A large toothy grin came across Johne's face as he remembered all the people he disappointed in his life. When you're the oldest child in your family it's a real easy thing to do. Especially if you can't design buildings or even help create them. When you can't be anything like your brother, the one who turned out exactly how everyone was hoping you'd turn out. Yet, of all the people he disappointed, he felt the worst about disappointing himself. He'd be fine with not being what everyone else wanted him to be, fine if only he had become what he wanted to be.
But it was another problem he wouldn't be able to solve. His head turned to the stars, his arm gently beginning to sway the steering wheel back and forth. Was it wrong to have failed? If you tried, was that good enough? But what is left in the end? A failure doesn't stay in the world, a failure disappears. It's success, achievement, that's remembered.
"Damn you guys..." he muttered.
Stars...she had truly loved those faint sparkles in the sky. If he had been able to do that right, then everything else wouldn't have mattered. He laughed a little to himself, still remembering every movement of her face, all the ways light could sparkle on her hair. But all those memories were just tattered ghosts of five years ago, no one else arriving to fill the hollow, to lay the corpses of time into the earth to rest. Somehow it hadn't fully struck him yet he had failed. For some illogical reason he still felt she might come back to him. He used to ask those shining things above him to tell her the words he couldn't say. The words he was too afraid to speak. The damn things must have been as afraid as he was or she wouldn't be gone.
His arm made a sharp turn to the left, then a sharp turn to the right. The world was bathed in darkness. Reality became the growl of the engine. The whistle of the wind. The smell of burned rubber. The jerking of the car.
"The girl from all those songs, who made everything feel right," he started to whisper, putting both hands on the steering wheel. "She stepped in like an angel, into your lonely life." Slowly the wheel twisted him off the path of crumbling tar, the fires flickering out in his eyes. "Filling the world with light." A tear crept down his face, gentle starlight reflected in it. "And everybody told ya, you're oh so lucky..."
His hands fell limply from the wheel, desert sand kicking up into the air and onto his face. The foot still pounded on the gas pedal, going up and down, flinging him back and forth. Where was it? Where was the rock? He couldn't force that other foot up, but something would come, something had to come. Make a dent in his car, nice and neat. He might make the papers. A body was discovered in the middle of the desert inside a beautiful fifties convertible. He'd be famous. Somebody'd know his name—would know who he was.
How the world would be if he was born a girl. If he wasn't born at all. If people didn't expect anything. If he didn't expect anything. If stars could speak. If stars could listen. If it was tomorrow. If it was yesterday. If God were kind. If God existed.
Then it came, something actually happened that he wanted to happen. The whole thing lifted off the ground, twisted onto its side with a roar, and rolled all around with him in it. The crash and crack of metal filled his ears, the taste of sand in his mouth, but there wasn't any pain, not any of those hundred excruciating tortures he imagined playing out. He wasn't washed over by the Reaper's robe, which he thought would happen if there was no suffering. But he felt something, something strange, a feeling of being a kid again and nothing in the world could hurt him. Like he'd wake-up to a time long ago when he didn't have any dreams. To when there were no clocks ticking away. When his parents loved him for just being there, no other reasons needed or sought after.
In the moment the last spinning wheel died, so did a warm pulse echo through the air, a feeling of peace washing over him.
A feeling like he could finally stop driving.