The road between Neighborhoods is long and empty. Few people leave their designated communities and the only buildings are the rest stops halfway between districts. But my job requires me to travel it.
The road between Neighborhoods is lonely and boring. Radio does not work well out here. My eyes bounce around and land on a lone figure walking in the dead grass. The man’s back is hunched and his clothes are worn as if he is Neighborless. But my sanity requires me to offer him a ride.
My foot eases off the gas and my hand rolls down the window as I pull up next to him. He continues walking, not even glancing my way.
“Excuse me?” I call, leaning over the center console into the passenger side.
He looks up now and pushes his hat back on his head, revealing his eyes. “Yes?” His voice is soft and draws out the word on the “e.”
“Would you like a ride? It’s a long walk.”
He finally stops and I stop the car next to him, waiting for his response. His words are slow coming. “To which Neighborhood,” he starts, looks across the brown plains, continues, “are you headed?”
My mouth opens and spills. “I’m one of the Counselors of the Evaluation for the Camaraderie Neighborhood. That’s where I’m headed now.”
He steps up to the car and stares over it for a second before bending down into the window. “That’s in the middle of the line,” his eyes bounce around, taking in the car’s interior, “isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
He straightens then his face appears in the window again. “I guess that’ll get me about there.”
I smile, unlock the doors. He pulls on the handle just enough to crack the door before gripping the edge with his fingers and pulling it the rest of the way open. He lowers himself into the leather seat daintily, as if scared it might hurt him. I wait until he is settled before putting my foot back on the clutch.
I sneak peeks at my companion out of the corner of my eye, but he stays in the same position, back rigid, face long, and eyes straight out the window. This is not going quite the way I’d hoped. I clear my throat. “So, exactly which Neighborhood are you headed to?”
About there. The line up started flashing through my mind. Demiurgic. Astute. Eremite. Camaraderie. Fastidious. Nonpartisan. And Frenetic. I cross the last one off. No possible way he comes from there. Once you’re in, they never let you out.
Silence hangs heavy, dripping down into my ears. Makes me want to shake my head to dislodge it. I prompt him. “Nonpartisan?”
The word brings a smile to his lips and a spark to his eye. “I suppose, in a way,” and his lips draw back from his teeth, “yes.”
My eyebrows scrunch down and my eyes stay on the road. His words buzz around my head, bouncing off the walls of my skull, as I try to discern their meaning. The man offers no explanation but instead turns in his seat, curls up against the door, and goes to sleep.
We pass the sign that announces the Eremite Neighborhood just ahead. It looks just as alone as I feel. And then the turnoff is there. I pause, checking for an unlikely car. A black blob rises in the distance, Eremite’s exterior walls, but it is the only thing I see. I move on.
“Fifty miles to go,” I mutter.
A soft chuckle fills the space inside the car. I glance over quickly at my companion but he has not moved. Rubbing a hand over my eyes, I repeat, “Fifty miles to go.”
The purr of the motor is quiet, soothing. The road does not change, straight mile after straight mile of black disappearing under my tires. My hands do not move. My feet do not move. My eyelids, however, start to droop, falling toward my lower lashes. They take my head with them. It bumps against the steering wheel.
And suddenly the road becomes a lot bumpier as the car swerves over into the grass. I jerk, twist the wheel to right the vehicle. My passenger sits up, one hand pushing against the window, the other grasping the edge of his seat. “What the hell?”
I take a deep breath, spot the rest stop up ahead. “I need to stop.”
I twist the steering wheel carefully, turning into the lot. It takes three tries, backing in and out of the parking space, until I am centered in between the yellow lines. I get out of the car, close the door carefully. Heat seeps through my pores and I rush inside. The filters instantly make it easier to breathe.
The light in the solitary bathroom is dingy, dirt caked on its fixture. It, and the dust that covers everything else, distorts my reflection as I stand at the sink. I turn the blue faucet and, with a rattle, water pores into the sink. I cup my hands, splash my face. My eyes go wide, shocked awake.
A paper towel dries my face and I head back to the car, taking a long breath before I step outside. Gravel crunches and skids under my feet before I get to smooth concrete. My footsteps are extra loud in the endless quiet.
I open the door to the car, get in, shut the door. I drum my fingers against the steering wheel. “You’re going to have to talk to me. To keep me from falling asleep.”
His mouth twists up. “How about if I pinch you if you start dozing?”
I laugh as I pull us back on the road. “I guess that could work. Long as you promise not to bruise.”
The weird smile comes back to his face. “Promise.”
I begin counting down the miles as we drive. Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.
“So, when you said you were a Nonpartisan ‘in a way,’ what did you mean? Were your parents Nonpartisan?” I ask, check off mile fifteen.
“No talking,” he leans his head against the window, “just pinching, remember?”
Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. I squint to catch sight of the Camaraderie sign. Ten. Nine. Of course it’s not even a speck on my windshield. Eight.
It is suddenly darker. I glance up, confused. A grey cloud has passed over the sun. “I think maybe you should pinch me.”
My companion laughs. His laugh starts out deep but progresses until it is high. “Don’t worry,” he leans forward, “you’re not seeing things.”
Five. Four. He’s right. From what I’ve seen in pictures, it’s too thin to be a storm cloud. “I wonder what it is.” Something tickles the back of my mind, some word.
Three. Smoke. Smoke. But smoke means, “Fire.”
My foot presses down harder on the gas. Two. The sign is coming up. I see that it hangs crooked from its post as we fly by. One.
I swerve around the turn, not pausing. The walls of the Camaraderie compound loom over us, growing taller by the second. A sight that should be familiar, but is nothing I’ve ever seen. The walls are red. The walls move. The walls are on fire.
We shoot right through the open gates. I slam on the brakes and scramble out of the car. My body shakes and I cough from the smoke, but I can’t move. I hear a car door shut, somehow, over the screaming. He comes around, stands next to me.
“You wanted to know what I meant when I said I’m a Nonpartisan ‘in a way.” He says it as a statement but I nod.
“Well, in a way I am a Nonpartisan. And in a way I am a Fastidious. And now,” he moves and there is something cold, sharp, pressed against my throat. “in a way I am a Camaraderie.” He laughs in my ear, that whole range of laughs. “But really, to answer your very first question, I am a Frenetic. Couldn’t you tell?”
The sharp cold thing presses harder against my neck. I’m sure it will do more than bruise. Frenetic. Insane. I close my eyes.