We drove in silence for a while until John’s nature got the best of him and he began talking again. Most of it I could apply my active listening skills to, by nodding my head and giving non-verbal encouragement. Amazing that people pay to learn how to do that.
I answered a few questions, keeping answers brief and giving yes or no responses when possible. I didn’t really like to talk about myself. I didn’t think anything about me was that interesting and the bits that were I felt it best to keep to myself.
When I couldn’t evade I tried to misdirect. It was clear John wasn’t going to let go asking me about what I did for work. I wanted to say “What does it matter?” but I could tell he was in a fragile state of mind yet and I might need him as a meat shield soon, so I tried to keep him engaged.
“I used to read a lot of books” I offered in an attempt to change the subject. John’s brows knitted together and his head tilted sharply to one side. I was going to have to pick up some treats for him next time I stopped. “Most of the books I read,at least the fiction ones were about the apocalypse” John laughed at that. “Yeah, I know” I continued “Anyway, most of those books all talked about how highways were choked with cars and bodies of people fleeing from whatever had caused the collapse.” It was early morning sometime– still dark out– and I reached down and flipped off the Jeeps lights to make the point.” I guess most of those guys weren’t thinking of an ‘apocalypse’ where people were too broke to bother dragging their cars out to block up the highways.”
The change in light wasn’t a huge one. Without using the Jeep’s “off-road” lights the illumination coming from the headlights was best described as anemic. We cruised along at 55 mph never needing to dodge any cars simply because there weren’t any. John seemed content with that bit of attention turning to look out the window as we drove.
“It’s not cool you know.” John said interrupting the silence of several long, glorious minutes.
For those few minutes he was quiet I forgot he was there.I almost swerved off the road when he spoke. “What’s not cool?”
“Changing the subject. I’m just trying to get to know you, y’know? I mean fuck sake, it’s not like I want to get in your pants if that’s what you’re thinking!”
Honestly it wasn’t. I was thinking as I always did of my grandfather. You got to know him by being around him, not through interrogation. All through my adult life, more like since I had turned twelve, I dreaded the “what are you doing” conversations. Every adult I met would ask “so, you’re in school right?’ No. I run a company that provides protection to foreign dignitaries and VIP’s overseas. Of course I’m in school; I’m 12. Now can I get back to my video game?
This of course turned into a “what’s your major/what do you do for a living” conversation as I got older. For that brief time I was in the Marines I really enjoyed not being asked that question. Everyone knew what they were doing and nobody cared what anyone else was doing so long as they didn’t get blown up near them.
I closed my eyes and took my hands off the steering wheel as I accelerated, willing the Norns, those weavers of fate to snip the thread of my life and save me from having this conversation one more time. When it was clear they weren’t going to oblige me, I sighed and said “I was a social worker, by profession.”
He scoffed “A social worker? You?” he laughed “Okay, go on, pull the other one.’
“It’s true” I said a bit defensively, already regretting my decision to open my mouth.
He cast a skeptical glance my way “Why would you want to be a social worker?” I favored him with a look of my own “You’ve known me for all of a day and you want to start making judgments about people? Really? That’s where you want to go with this?” He considered this for a minute and then started laughing like a kid who’s just heard the word ‘boobies’ for the first time in his life. “Well you have a point there, Mister Finn.”
The sun had just started to break the horizon to the east casting a pale purple glow in the inky sky overhead. I saw a blue sign on the road side that said there was food and gas up ahead and decided to risk it. I looked back to John and told him to get ready just in case.
I let the Jeep coast up the off ramp wanting to make as little noise as possible. the Jeep sat idling as I looked around. Nothing looked immediately out-of-place. I was even getting used to there being no other traffic to deal with, but something just felt off. I thumbed back the hammer on my revolver and kept scanning. I had just about decided that I was being overly paranoid when I saw some reflected light coming from the roof of the gas station I was going to check out.
I put the Jeep in gear and it jumped forward causing the big off-road tires to chirp as it did. John looked panicked but was keeping quiet. At least he’d figured out that much. I was short shifting the Jeep as I entered the on ramp trying to build speed as quickly as I could. The rear window exploded behind us as I put it into 5th gear and an instant later I heard the rifle’s report. The inline 6 was screaming now as I stood on the gas, the Jeep doing the best it could to gain speed. I turned to look at John “You okay back there?” He nodded and kept looking behind us for signs of pursuit. Well if nothing else, I thought, I figured out how to make him be quiet.
We were down the road about a 1/2 mile when John finally asked “What in god’s name was that?!” “A warning.” I chuckled a bit. “I saw the shooter’s scope. He gave himself away–intentionally I think–and gave me a second to react.” John took a drink of water and spat a bit out the window. Combat dry throat. He was adjusting pretty well.
We had gone almost 10 miles when the Jeep started to sputter. The fuel gauge was reading empty. I pulled over onto the shoulder and got out to get one of the Jerry cans out of the cargo area. As I came around the back and popped open the lift gate I noticed the trail leading back toward the town. I dropped to my knees muttering a curse and hoping this wasn’t what I thought.
My fears were confirmed as I examined the skid plate that covered the Jeep’s gas tank. Two good-sized holes had sprouted there with drops of precious gasoline hanging on to the ragged edges of the metal. I had my rifle in hand and started walking back toward the town before my words rang in back in my head. A warning. That’s exactly what it had been. Anyone that could hit a moving target like that could have hit me just as easily if there had been a shot. If I approached on foot, that’s exactly what I would be giving them.
I turned back toward the Jeep, John’s constant chattering finally cut through my anger. I stared at him until he quit talking. “Get in the Jeep.” I was glad I didn’t have to repeat myself. I think I would have shot him if he didn’t obey. I looked through my supplies for something I could plug the holes with. I ended up cutting the rubber floor mat and rolling it as tight as I could then jamming it into the bullet holes. I wished for some plumber’s putty or even some JB Weld, but I didn’t carry anything like that in my bug out bags.
I emptied the last Jerry can into the tank and got back on my knees to look at the skid plate. It took a few seconds, but eventually I saw the gas begin to seep out. I cursed some more as I got behind the wheel and hoped that the Jeep would fire. The engine cranked uselessly for about 5 seconds before it roared back to life. I floored it. I got up to speed as quickly as I could and began issuing orders for John to start getting pieces of gear out of the cargo area. We made it almost 30 miles before the Jeep started coughing and the fuel gauge was again reading empty. The engine died and I put in neutral, coasting until we lost all our momentum.
I put the Jeep in gear and got out, taking my bug out bag with me. I wished now I had kept the .338 Lapua. I’d love to show it to the sniper that killed my Jeep. As I gathered the things I thought I would need and doing the math in my head about how much weight I could carry I began to sing softly Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills”.
The words of a long ago drill instructor came back to me at this point. The only easy day was yesterday. I slung my rifle and started walking.