“It’s way too cramped back here,” I complained as the sedan Cassie had stolen careened down the long, empty stretch of highway. “Couldn’t we have put the General in the trunk? She’s too big for a car this size. It’s like trying to share a backseat with Shaq.”
“I offered to let you sit in the front,” Jonah said in a strained voice without looking back at me. He was too busy concentrating to pay too much attention to my predicament.
“No you didn’t,” I snapped.
“He did,” Cassie insisted. I didn’t know if I believed her. I couldn’t remember him making the offer, and I can’t imagine I’d have turned it down if he had.
We’d already been driving for hours without so much as a quick pitstop, and my bladder was starting to ache. “Can we at least pull over for a minute? I really need to use the bathroom,” I stated.
“Can’t you hold it?” Cassie asked, sounding a bit annoyed. “We’re almost to the service station that Jonah saw Emerson would pass, so we might actually catch up to him soon, assuming he doesn’t get off at one of these exits to nowhere.”
“Fine. I’ll try,” I said. “But I’m not making any promises.”
“Guys, please - I could really use some quiet,” Jonah interrupted. “What I’m doing is like trying to grasp water in your hand. It’s difficult enough as it is, without having all these other distractions around me.”
Ever since we’d gotten on the road, Jonah had been trying to scan the immediate future of people at different rest stops along the highway, narrowing down where he had to look based on the signs we passed. Not having a concrete individual to concentrate his abilities on meant a lot more trial and error, not to mention it was rapidly wearing him out. On the bright side, he’d managed to have a little bit of success - earlier on, Jonah had found a gas station employee who would see Cassie’s truck driving past on its way south, and we had nearly reached the location ourselves now. If his vision was correct, we would only be about twenty minutes behind Emerson once we got there.
“Can we really even trust what you see anymore?” I asked, sounding a bit more petulant than I’d intended. “You seem to get these things wrong quite a bit, lately.”
“Max!” Cassie chastised, but Jonah hushed her.
“It’s fine, Cass. It’s not his fault.”
“I know,” she replied.
And besides,” Jonah added, “he’s right. But it’s all we’ve got to go on at the moment.”
As I watched the monotonous repetition of tree after tree go by out the window, I started feeling extremely agitated. “I need to get out of this damn car!” I snarled. “I can’t take it anymore!”
“Max, you need to calm down,” Cassie responded. “This isn’t you. I know it’s difficult, but you need to try to fight the effects. Focus on something soothing, like the last time you were at the beach.”
I realized she was right. It was like a fog had cleared from my head, and I could remember what was happening. The virus was starting to get worse, and it was affecting my thoughts and my memory. It didn’t last very long, but this was now the second time it had happened since we’d been in the car. It seemed to come on when I got upset, so I took a deep breath and tried to visualize the smell of the salt air and the sound of the waves crashing along the shore.
“I’m sorry,” I said apologetically. “I know you guys are doing everything you can to help me. I just hope we can find Emerson before it’s too late.”
“We will. I have faith that you’re gonna be okay,” Jonah stated. He then closed his eyes and resumed searching for clues as to where Emerson was going. A little while later, we passed a sign for a rest stop thirty miles away and Jonah tapped the dashboard to get our attention. “He’s gonna stop. I see your truck parked in the rest stop parking lot. Haven’t spotted him, yet, but he’s gotta be there somewhere.” Jonah slumped down in his seat. He sounded weak. The effort was clearly taking a heavy toll on him.
“Take a break,” Cassie told him. “You’re no good to us like this, and we’re gonna need you soon.”
“Good idea,” he replied, closing his eyes. “Let me know when we get there.”
We arrived at the rest stop shortly after, and to my dismay, the place was surprisingly busy. The parking lot was filled with cars, forcing us to pull into a space near the outskirts, well away from the building itself. Cassie turned off the car and gave Jonah a nudge.
“Any idea where my truck might be?” she asked.
Jonah opened his eyes again and let out a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Um...yeah. It should be parked a few rows back from the side entrance.”
“Okay. You stay here,” she said. “Max and I will go check it out.” Turning towards me, she handed me a pistol. “Sorry, this is the only extra weapon I had on me when Emerson took off with our stuff. Keep it hidden for now. We don’t wanna let people see us running around here with guns if we don’t have to.”
“Got it,” I replied, and stuffed the pistol into my jacket. “How do you wanna do this?”
“Once we spot the truck, I’ll move in towards the driver’s side, in case he’s in there. You go in from the aisle, blocking his escape. I’ll go invisible once we can confirm if he’s there and hit him before he can react.”
We climbed out and moved towards the side entrance of the rest stop building. Sure enough, Cassie’s truck was in plain sight, parked right in the middle of the row. Cassie signaled me to get into position while she did the same. She snuck towards the truck, using the other cars for cover while I approached it from behind. We were barely twenty feet away when I heard Jonah scream out, “Stop!”
I had no time to react before the truck erupted into a ball of fire, the concussive blast knocking me clear off my feet. The vehicles surrounding the explosion had their windows blown out, and a number of alarms started blaring in the aftermath. Jonah rushed over to me and threw himself down next to me, using his hands to smother the bits of flame on my clothing. He then dragged me away from the area as chaos set in all around us. Throngs of people ran for cover, while the sounds of sirens in the distance began to close in.
“He blew up my truck!” Cassie hissed angrily as she came limping towards us. She was a bit banged up, having been thrown into a car from the blast, but another vehicle had shielded her from the worst of the explosion. “When I get my hands on that snake…”
“It was just a distraction,” Jonah said wearily. “Go check our car - I think he’s after the General.”
Cassie set off immediately to see if she could intercept Emerson, but she wasn’t able to move very fast in her current condition. The ringing in my ears was making it hard to hear, and I asked a bit louder than I’d intended, “What the heck happened?”
“I was trying to scan around the immediate future, looking to see if I could pinpoint if Emerson would try to leave with the truck and saw the explosion,” Jonah explained. “I don’t think he wanted to kill us, otherwise he would’ve waited till you were closer before setting it off. He wanted to make sure we were away from our car so he could rescue the General.”
“Jonah!” Cassie called out. “I’ve got him!”
“C’mon, kid. Can you get up?” Jonah inquired. I nodded in the affirmative, and he helped me to my feet.
“Go, I’ll be right behind you,” I said, and he headed off to help Cassie as I followed, grimacing with each step as I felt a sharp pain shoot through my ribs and back. I pined for the halcyon days when it was only the bullet wound in my shoulder that hurt like heck.
When I neared our car, I saw Emerson kneeling with his hands on his head next to the side of the vehicle, and a furious-looking Cassie holding her gun on him. She was shouting, but I couldn’t discern what she was saying. Jonah was motioning with his hands, trying to talk to her, but she didn’t seem to be paying him any mind, and instead gave Emerson a swift kick in the stomach. The ringing in my ears seemed to grow worse until I realized it was actually the sirens of the fire engines that had arrived in the parking lot.
“We should probably get out of here,” I suggested when I reached the others. “The police are gonna be swarming around here any minute, and I’m in enough trouble with them as it is. Being involved in another bombing isn’t gonna help my case with them.”
“Good idea,” Cassie replied. “Let me just put a bullet in this rat’s head and we’ll be on our way.”
“No,” Jonah said firmly. “We’re taking him with us. He’s the only one who knows how to cure Max, remember?”
“Ugh! Right,” Cassie groaned. “I guess nearly being blown to smithereens made me forget about that for a minute.” Glowering at Emerson, she added, “Lucky you.” She put her weapon away and bound his ankles and wrists with zip ties from her pockets, and I briefly wondered just how many of those things she kept on her at any given time.
“There’s no more room in the backseat,” I noted. “He’s gonna have to ride in the trunk.”
“Perfect,” Cassie said with a smirk. Emerson simply looked solemnly down at the ground, resigned to his fate.