In the Wheels
by Daryl Gregory
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of the amber, out of the midst of the fire… and this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man…. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
—Ezekiel 1:4-5, 20
It was just a car.
“No!” said Zeke from underneath it, “it’s more than that, Joey. It’s fucking perfect.”
We were fifteen. Zeke had found a huge underground vault, a crypt of old cars in the City, and he had dragged me out there to hold the lantern while he checked it out. I was supposed to be on the way to my Uncle Peter’s farm to help bring in the hay.
“Zeke, don’t be crazy. Let’s get out of here.” The City was death, everybody knew that. I could feel the germs and the rads crawling across my skin. We were going to be dead in three days with huge welts all over our skin. Superstitious, I know.
Zeke could always get me to do stuff I never would have done on my own. He would say something like, why don’t we go up and sit on the white highways; and even though I thought it was a completely stupid idea, I would go. Or he would say, let’s go into Dead City and look for a car, and even though nobody’d lived in The City since before the Cold, I would say all right, and we’d go.
And here I was.
The car looked to me like a crumbling wreck. It was a big Chevy, which Zeke pronounced “Shev-ee” like his father Frank. The tires were flat and rotted out, the paint job was webbed with cracks, and the stuff on the inside was all split and pitted.
Zeke rolled out from beneath the car and grinned. “Don’t be such a little girl. The block’s intact. It’ll work.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. The car looked nothing like the chariots they raced on the white highways, and I told him so. “Besides, how are you going to get it out of here?” We’d had to dig our way through rubble ourselves, and I saw no way to get this heap up to the surface.
“Leave that to me,” he said. I should have known then that he was serious. There was no natural way to move that much rock out of the way, much less carry the car up.
Two weeks later Zeke caught me as I was walking home from the schoolhouse. The palms of his hands were wrapped in rags. “Joey, boy. Tonight we should take a little trip.”
“What did you do to your hands?”
“Nothing. Hurt ’em working on the car. Will you be there?”
“I can’t sneak out again without getting caught. Why can’t we wait til Saturday?”
My sisters raced past us. “We’re gonna tell Firstmother you’re talking to Zeke!”
“Oh Lord Jesus,” I said. I would catch heck later.
“Don’t worry about it. Tonight, all right? And bring paint.”
“Paint? Where am I going to get paint?”
“Check your barn, stupid.”
Zeke was right, as usual. There was paint in the barn, some old cans of red that Grampa had mixed years ago. But I couldn’t take off with it until nightfall.
The fire is always the center of the home. Father had built the chimney first, stone by stone, and the kitchen around it. As the children were born he had added small rooms that sprang off from the kitchen at odd angles, and after I’d gotten big enough to help him we built the porch around the front door.
Firstmother started her prayer that evening with the usual, “Thank you Jesus for the Summer Sun,” while Sara, my pop’s new young wife (barely older than me), passed potatoes and a little mashed corn around the table. Pop took a potato and bit into it. Firstmother went through the entire list of crops we were hoping for, plus all of the sins me, my sisters, Pop, and most of all Sara had committed that week. She kept going until she saw that Sara was almost finished setting the table, and then Firstmother finished off the whole thing by saying, “and especially watch over our young Joseph, and protect him from the temptations that so beset a young man.” My sisters giggled; then we all said “Amen.” Sara sat down gratefully.
Firstmother eyed the table. “I don’t see no salt here.”
Sara jumped up and vanished into the kitchen, and Firstmother said, “I been hearing that you were running around with Zeke again after Schoolhouse.” My sisters giggled again.
“No ma’am, I wasn’t ‘running around,’ I just….”
“Don’t talk back to me, boy.” Sara came back into the room carrying the salt bowl. My father was chewing intently, silently, as always. And Sara was worse than no help, a liability.
It was time. I either had to stand up for Zeke or listen forever to everything Firstmother said. I looked her in the eye. “What’s the matter with Zeke, anyways?”
She stared back. “You know what’s the matter with Zeke. His father’s a drunk, a black magician, a road racer, a no-good consorter with demons—”
Firstmother stopped in mid sentence. Sara and us kids dropped our eyes instantly to our plates. Pop never spoke at the dinner table.
“What did you say, Samuel?” Firstmother said icily.
Pop looked up. He kept chewing as he talked, red potatoes mashing between his teeth. His voice was quiet, like when he was explaining why he was going to hit you for not feeding the horses on time. “I said, Rachel, that enough was enough. Frank Landers has had his troubles. I don’t want any wife of mine continuing to add to them.”
Firstmother was almost sputtering. “I will not have my son hanging around with the son of a demoner!” She picked up her plate and stalked to the kitchen.
Pop picked up another potato. My sisters stared moodily at their food. And even with her head bowed and her hair falling across her eyes, I could see the barest beginnings of a smile on Sara’s face.
Just after ten that night I was banging around in the dark with two cans of red paint. I’d stuffed my blankets with pillows and climbed out the window, hoping that Firstmother wouldn’t think to check on me—she did that sometimes.
I was circling Zeke’s house to knock on his bedroom window when I saw lamplight seeping through the cracks of the old shed set away from the house. The door, usually chained shut, was busted open. Zeke was there, his back to me as he rummaged through some cabinets at the back of the shed. And there was something else.
It was a Pontiac—one of the big cars they race down in Mexicana. It was painted almost all black, but in the flicker I could make out a spiderweb of silver lines. The tires were low, and there was some rust along the bottom of the driver’s side door, but overall it looked real good.
“You’re late,” Zeke said when he turned around. “Here. Grab these.” He was holding up three dusty books, two cans of paint and a bucket of brushes in his bandaged hands.
“Lord Jesus, Zeke! Where did this thing come from?”
“Nowhere.” He dropped the paint at my feet and circled the room, blowing out lanterns.
“C’mon, whose car is this? Is this your dad’s?” There’d been rumors about Zeke’s dad, Frank, ever since I was a kid. Everybody knew he was a drunk now, but every once in a while you’d hear an adult say something about the magic, or a pro driver.
Zeke pushed me and the buckets outside. He wound the chain up around the door handle and said, “Forget it. That car ain’t there, you understand?” He turned to me, and in the moonlight I could barely make out a smile. The smile was always the end of the argument with Zeke. “Ready for a little hike?”
We took the short-cuts and made it into the city in under two hours. For the entire trip, Zeke wouldn’t talk about the Pontiac, but the subject was still cars.
“Joey,” he said, “I’m gonna race on the white highways. I’m gonna win. Then I’m going to Mexicana and I’m gonna race the Brujo.”
“The Brujo? Phil Mendez? You’re crazy, Zeke.”
“You know I’m crazy. That’s why I’m gonna win.”
“That’s why you’re going to die. Messing with the demons and magic is serious stuff. I don’t even know why I’m helping you.”
He nudged me. “You haven’t figured that out, Joey? Because you love this shit. You love being bad, breaking the rules, messing with magic. And if anything goes wrong, you can blame it on mean old Zeke.”
“You’re full of it,” I said. But I knew he was right.
The Chevy was sitting in an alley that had been cleared of rubble.
“Christ in the tomb,” I whispered.
Zeke started lighting lamps that had been placed in a circle around the car. I was conscious of Dead City surrounding us on all sides. I set my buckets on the ground and walked forward.
“Christ in the tomb,” I said again, louder. “How did you get it up here?”
“An angel pushed the boulders out of the way. What do you think?” Zeke opened one of the books and began flipping through its pages.
“Zeke! You already did it? What happened?”
“Nothing happened.” He studied a diagram on one page of the book. “Now get those cans of red over here. I want to prime it in red.”
“Jesus Lord, I should have known it when I saw your hands.” I followed him around the circle. “What was it like? Did it have wings? Did it look like the Devil?”
“How the hell would I know what the Devil looks like?” Zeke snapped the book shut and handed me a big brush. “Smooth, slow strokes, all over the hood. Don’t mess it up.” He set the books off to the side carefully.
“Zeke, why do we have to work on it out here, in the City?”
“Can’t you feel it?” His voice sounded like he was speaking from under the ground. “There’s a lot of death here. A lot of power.” Death. Power. I was out of my depth.
I didn’t ask any more questions. We worked silently for almost three hours. Two hours before dawn we put the cans and brushes beneath the car, doused the lamps, and walked home. Zeke whistled the whole way.
One or two days a week for almost two months I made the trek out to the city with or for Zeke. He had stopped going to schoolhouse. He would stay awake for days, working on the car, talking about how he was going to take it on the circuit and blow everybody else away. I’d bring him some food from home and he’d barely look at it.
Looking back, I know I could have done something to stop him. I could have hid the tools, or sabotaged the paint, or told my folks what we were doing. But Zeke was Zeke. And I couldn’t imagine any situation that Zeke couldn’t handle.
Me, I was a different story. I was petrified Firstmother or Father would find out what I was up to. I would tell Zeke that I was absolutely never coming back out to the City. But Zeke would tell me he needed me to bring something out; and, sure enough, that night I would climb out my window and head toward Dead City. Considering my nervousness and lack of confidence, I had amazing luck. Of all the times I sneaked out of the house to go help him, I was only caught once.
It was mid-June and I was late coming back from the City. The sun was just starting to come up behind me. I was about to boost myself over the window ledge and start pretending to be asleep when Sara walked around the corner. What was she doing up this early? She stared at me and I slowly dropped back to the ground. If she told Firstmother (which she wouldn’t) or Father (which she probably would) I was in big trouble.
“Sara, listen…” I began. She shushed me with a finger to her lips. She grinned like a little kid.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. “I’m Secondmother now.”
“That’s great,” I said. We stood there in silence for a while, me nervously watching the sun get bigger and brighter every minute. Finally she reached up and touched the top of my head.
“You’d better get inside now, Joseph.” She turned her back to me and walked around the corner again. I scrambled up the wall and dove into bed. A few minutes later Father came in to wake me up for the morning chores.
The night we were to call the Engine, I walked into the City early, just before dusk. I wanted to look at the car alone, in daylight.
I took almost as much pride in it as Zeke did.
At that time I’d only seen one race on the white highways, between two cars on the pro circuit from Nevada. I’d thought the cars were the most beautiful, terrible things in the world. But Zeke’s car, our car, surpassed them.
Not in beauty. Even by lamplight, the lines on the Chevy did not look delicate; the interior did not look padded and luxurious; the wheels were not trimmed in gold like the circuit cars were. But for sheer terribleness, you couldn’t match Zeke’s Chevy.
It was red, but a red shot through with yellow and white lines that, by lamplight, flickered and burned. I’d asked Zeke how he did it. How did he know what design was needed, what pattern of lines and circles and rectangles was called for. Zeke said that every pattern on every car was exactly the same, but I said that was horse-hockey—I’d seen the pro cars, and each design was as different from the other as strangers.
As I entered the alley I could see that the Chevy was no less terrible by daylight. I could make out each line and shape, and as I looked I began to grasp the logic of their relationships. Each line bound one shape to another; each shape froze the line in its path. There was no way to look past that design to the base red, and there was no path from the red out.
The pattern was bars to a cage, and the cage was the car.
Suddenly I realized that there was someone in the car behind the wheel; nearly as quick I knew it was Frank. The door opened and he heaved himself out. He stumbled forward, then leaned against the hood. As I walked toward him he drew a flask and swallowed hard.
“Who are you?”
“Joseph Peterson,” I said. I was ready to break and run if he got crazy. I’d seen Frank drunk, but I’d always stayed out of his way. So did Zeke.
His eyes narrowed. “Sam’s boy?”
“That’s right.” He shook his head as if to clear it. He looked at the car beneath his hand.
“What the hell are you boys trying to do out here?”
“Nothing? C’mere, boy. Look at this.” Cautiously I walked over. He traced one of the lines with his finger. The finger, and now I noticed the entire hand as well, was covered with pink scars. I looked at where he pointed. There was a small break in the paint. “That’s sloppy, boy, sloppy that could get you killed. That line’s useless, and if your Engine finds that break it’s gonna try to pop right out of there.” He pulled me around to the open driver’s door. “Look at that steerin’ wheel.”
I looked. “I don’t see anything wrong.”
Frank made a sound like a man trying to push a mule uphill, and he shoved me into the seat. “Put your hands on the wheel.”
I did as I was told, but I was also trying to see if I could scoot over to the other door and get out before he could grab me again. “No no no. Look where your hands are. Put ‘em at two o’clock and ten. Now, see where the pattern stops to either sides of your hands? Those are your channels, and if your hand’s not completely covering those blank spots when the blood’s flowing, the Engine’s gonna climb up into your lap and bite your head off. Then you go zombi.”
“Zeke’s hands are bigger,” I said defensively.
“Nobody races with channels that big. Don’t you understand, boy? It’s a two way street. You reach in, and it reaches you.”
“But Zeke says with bigger channels you get more speed, more fuel out of the Engine…”
“Boy, speed’s not everything.”
Suddenly a big bandaged hand reached in and hauled Frank out of the door. Zeke held him by the shirt collar and shouted at him. “What are doing here, old man? What are you doing here!” Zeke pushed Frank away from him. Frank stumbled backwards and fell to the ground.
Zeke stalked off to the other side of the car. I was left looking at Frank. He wasn’t getting up. After half a minute I got out of the car and went to see if he was all right.
His eyes were open, but he wasn’t seeing me. It was like he was caught up in a memory, or a dream that he couldn’t shake.
“Can I give you a hand?” I asked. His eyes focused on me. He shook his head and slowly levered himself up into a sitting position. After a while he eased himself up and walked stiff-leggedly out of the alley.
“That was kind of rough, don’t you think?” I told Zeke.
He didn’t answer, or even look at me. He was flipping through one of his books again. And if I hadn’t known Zeke as well as I did, I would have sworn he looked like a boy about to cry. He slammed the book shut, picked up a brush, and began filling in the breaks in the lines of the pattern with quick, angry strokes. He left the channels on the steering wheel untouched.
An hour or so later Zeke began to talk again as he worked, but it was only about the Circuit, and how fast this car was going to be, and taking on Brujo Mendez in Mexicana.
“What’s the big deal with Mendez?” I asked.
“He’s the best,” Zeke said, “no one’s ever beaten him.”
By eleven, Zeke was almost finished.
If the car was a cage, the Gateway pattern was the carrot to lure the Engine in. Zeke had drawn three blue circles on the ground, lined up in a row, each circle edge touching the edge of another circle. The biggest circle was around the car. The middle circle was smaller and laced with intersecting diagonal lines. The last circle was the smallest. Zeke was sitting in the center of that circle and painting in a complex double row of shapes and lines around the inside of the border.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
Zeke smiled. “I sit here,” he said, “and the demon pops up there.” The middle circle. “Then it becomes a test. Can I push it into the car or not.”
“What if you can’t?”
“Then either of two things is going to happen. It’s going to force its way into my circle, or it’s going to go back where it came from.”
“And if it gets in?”
“Then you’d better run like hell, Joey. I’ll already be gone.”
Zeke laughed. “I never heard you swear before! You’re hanging out with the wrong guy, Joseph.”
“I know it. When do you start?”
We waited out the hour (Zeke inside his circle, me outside the whole pattern) listening to the silence of Dead City. I still feared the City, but it was a familiar fear.
I tried to imagine thousands of people living in these buildings, but I couldn’t do it. Where would all the food come from? What did they do for a living, besides drive cars?
Zeke said, “All right. It’s time.” Zeke told me to douse the lanterns around the alley. Before the last of the light went out, though, I saw Zeke take off his bandages. The scabs on his palms that looked like black holes in his skin. I turned away and doused the last lamp.
Moonlight glinted off something metallic in Zeke’s hands. I heard him gasp, and then I saw blotches of phosphorescent blood appear in the middle circle. Then the entire pattern flared into blue fire.
After a minute the fire subsided to a glow that lit up the alley. Zeke sat in the center of his circle, hugging his knees, staring at the middle circle. The blotches were burning brighter now. I gazed from Zeke to the middle circle to the car. For the longest time nothing happened at all.
I can’t tell you how the thing appeared, because I was looking at Zeke’s face when I heard it. It sounded like a huge downpour, or the center of a waterfall. Zeke gritted his teeth and grunted like he’d been stabbed in the gut, and I flicked my eyes to the middle circle again. It was already there…
…the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It swirled like a dust-devil, but a dust-devil made of light. It was not green, or red, or any other color, really. It simply was. I know that’s crazy.
It spun toward Zeke, moaning like a tornado, and as it moved I saw the bright blotches rise up and become part of the whirlwind. It battered at Zeke’s circle, sparks flying as flakes of paint chipped off the ground and joined the spinning air. Zeke clenched his fist. Blood poured down his arms. The thing spun backwards; then Zeke was on his feet, shouting at the top of his lungs. I couldn’t make out the words over the roar.
After that it was over almost instantly. The whirlwind broke through the circle surrounding the car, then vanished. The circles and rectangles on the Chevy flared a moment and went dark. The blue circles on the ground faded.
We were in darkness.
That’s when I realized Zeke was calling for help. I ran to him, picked the bandages off the ground, and began to wrap up his hands. There was so much blood I couldn’t tell where the wound was: but I cinched both bandages tight. Zeke’s hair was matted to his head with sweat. A smile was playing around his face. He stood up, holding me. Then he looked at the car and whooped for joy.
When Zeke got in and started her up, I whooped too.
August was race season. Any kid who could escape his family snuck off at night to the white highways.
The highways have always been here. They are cracked, and full of holes, and some whole sections of bridges have collapsed, You can still ride the white highways from one ocean to another, from Canuck to Mexicana. And if you’re a driver, you can race on them.
The pro driver that first Saturday in August was a blond-haired guy from Appalachia who called himself the Bobcat and drove a blue and gold Ford. The local girls who’d ditched their folks were pooling in the glow of his headlights like moths, jockeying to get closer to him. The boys were standing around in tight bunches outside the light, looking at the car. Everyone was very careful not to lean on the Bobcat’s car.
We watched him from a ridge above the highways. Zeke had said he wanted to size up the competition. He snorted. “I’m gonna bury this guy.”
I wasn’t so sure. The Bobcat wasn’t famous on the circuit, but he was still a pro driver, and Zeke had never raced before. But Zeke was Zeke. And he was confident as hell. “Let’s go,” he said. I climbed in from the passenger side and Zeke slid in the other door. He planted his big hands on the steering wheel—completely covering the channels, I saw—and his face contorted into an angry sneer like he was wrestling the Engine for control. Finally he smiled.
We shot down the ridge, the Engine growling like a caged bear, and popped through a hole in the railing. Zeke slid to a stop just behind Bobcat, his lights focusing on the blue Ford. The blond-haired driver looked at us for a moment. I thought I saw a little doubt in his face, but then he shrugged and turned back to the girls.
Zeke eased the Chevy up to the line. “Hey, piss-head,” Zeke said. The Bobcat ignored us.
“I said, ‘Hey, piss-head.’”
Bobcat thumbed one gloved hand at us and asked one of the girls, “Who is this yokel?”
It was Lydia Mitchum, the Preacher’s daughter, who answered. “That’s Zeke Landers.”
The Bobcat turned to us and leaned down to look into the car. “That’s it? Just ‘Zeke?’”
Zeke was ready to jump out of the car and punch this guy. I looked at his wild red hair falling like a mane down his back and I said, “Don’t you know who this is, little Bobcat? This the King of the Beasts, Zeke the Lion!”
Zeke gave me a look that told me to shut up, but the word was already out among the watchers.
Bobcat looked annoyed. “Okay, ‘Lion.’ What stakes are you willing to put up?”
Zeke didn’t hesitate a second. “Pink slips.”
“Are you crazy, yokel? You’re going to go zombi for sure.”
“I win, I take your Ford.”
“And if I win, I take your ugly Chevy and drive it off a cliff!”
“Do what you want,” Zeke said. “Down to Busted Bridge, two miles.” He grinned. End of argument.
“Two miles. You’re on.” Bobcat pushed the girls out of the way and climbed into his Ford. Zeke and I watched him pull the inserts out of the palms of his gloves, prick the exposed skin with a small knife, and then fit his hands over the channels. He called Lydia over to tie the thongs of his gloves to the steering wheel.
Zeke snorted. “Wimp.” Zeke’s hands were bare as always. I pushed the handle to get out.
“Hey! Where you going?”
“I’m going to watch,” I said.
“Like hell. Don’t you know you’re my lucky piece? You ride with me!” I got back in, scared but excited as all hell. The Bobcat started his Engine and the crowd backed away to the railings. Zeke tightened his grip on the wheel. Our Engine growled to life.
Lydia Mitchum stripped off her green t-shirt and stood between our headlights. I couldn’t take my eyes off her breasts. “On my mark!” she yelled, raising the shirt above her head. Zeke snarled under his breath. Lydia brought the green cloth down. “Go!”
I think I screamed most of the way down the track. And then I looked over at Zeke and saw that he was smiling. Maybe I should have realized then that I had no part in this, but with Zeke so confident and in control, I started to smile too. We beat the Ford to Busted Bridge by a quarter mile.
The Bobcat was furious. “Who the hell are you!? What kind of Engine is that?” he kept yelling. Zeke told him to keep his shitty car and go home.
Zeke grabbed me by the shoulders. “So what do you say? Do we hit the circuit or what?”
I was young. I had just won my first race with Zeke. I said yes.
I left a note for my Father telling him I would be back for the harvest in October. Then I hopped out my window, a sack of clothes in my hand, and headed out across the fields to Zeke’s house. When I got there, Zeke was taking an axe to a tin contraption behind the shed. “What is that?” I said.
“His still.” He broke up the last of the tubing, dumped a big barrel of mash on the ground, and then tossed the axe into the field. “Maybe this will keep him alive ‘til I get back,” he said.
We drove the white highways, only getting off when the road was too ridden with holes or the bridges were out. Zeke the Lion became the new name on the circuit. “I refuse to lose,” he’d say to me before each race. And he didn’t. We drove through Kintucky, Appalachia, Texas, Misery, taking on all challenges. We would sleep outside, or in the Chevy if it was raining.
There were always girls at the races. A lot of times I would have to walk around for a couple of hours while Zeke was using the car. Or he would gather a bunch of kids around, slowly strip off his bandages, and tell them what it was like to drive one of the Engines. Zeke loved every minute of it. I spent every minute horny as hell, but the Driver magic didn’t seem to rub off on me.
And Zeke was changing. By late August he was staying out later and later before each race. He’d get roaring drunk and then shake me awake. He always wanted to talk. Most of the time it was racing: about the cars he’d beaten, or was going to beat in the next town, and especially how he was going to take on the Brujo in Mexicana.
But sometimes it was weirder stuff. “Joey,” he said to me one night in Texas, “the voice is getting louder. When I start a race, I can hear it screaming at me. It’s gettingin, Joey.” I asked what he meant but he only stared at his hands and mumbled again, “It’s getting in, I can feel it.” Then he took another slug of corn-gin. After a while he shambled off into the darkness.
By September we were in Mexicana.
The Brujo was nothing like I expected. I first saw him standing near his big white Caddy, surrounded by a group of racers. He was talking in a loud high voice and when he laughed he sounded like an old woman. His face was fat, and he beamed at everyone around him like an idiot.
When he saw Zeke and me step out of the Chevy he walked over. His body was as fat as his face, much too soft for an Engine driver’s. He held out a big gloved hand to me and smiled. Long leather thongs hung from the gloves. “I am Phil Mendez! You must be Lucky Joe!” That had gotten to be my name on the Circuit. We shook hands but his eyes were already on Zeke. Those eyes were flat, professional.
His smile faded. “This is the Lion?” Zeke was in bad shape. His skin was pale from blood loss, his hands were shaky, and his eyes were bloodshot. He hadn’t eaten well in days. And he was still drunk from a binge last night.
“I want to race,” Zeke said. His voice was raspy.
“My friend, Zeke,” the Brujo said, “you aren’t well enough to shit on a rock.” The Brujo’s gaze swiveled back to me. “No race. Get him out of here.”
“No!” screamed Zeke, and he grabbed Mendez by the shirt. “You can’t chicken out on me, sucker.” Mendez looked at him coldly. I suddenly realized that the Brujo was an old man, maybe older than Frank.
There was a few seconds of silence. Then the Brujo smiled. “Okay, little man. What kind of car you want to put up?” Zeke let go of his shirt and Mendez looked over at the Chevy. He studied it for a moment and then looked at me.
“Who painted that car?” he snapped.
“Bullshit.” He walked up to the car and circled it once. “I know this pattern.”
Zeke shouted at him. “So what’s the deal? We race?”
“You’re from up around Illini, aren’t you?” I nodded. The Brujo shook his head sadly. “I thought so. I thought so.” He turned back to the circle of drivers waiting for him by the Caddy. “Okay, little man. You get your race.”
We watched the Brujo take on three challengers that day, which was almost unheard of on the Circuit. Every time the Brujo’s big caddy beat someone to the two-mile marker Zeke would say, “I can take that. I can take it.”
We were scheduled for the next morning. Racers and girls and local kids stopped by our car to wish Zeke luck tomorrow. Bottles were passed. Zeke wasn’t drinking that night, but for the first time I was. It tasted horrible.
“I need an edge,” Zeke said to me after everyone had left. He passed me a bottle. “He’s got a bigger Engine in that Caddy.”
“Forget it,” I said. My voice was too loud. “There’s no way for you to get a bigger Engine.”
Zeke leaned against the hood. “Not a bigger Engine, Joey. More fuel, that’s all that matters. Bigger channels.”
I drained the last of the bottle. The world was spinning a little crazily and I just wanted to lie flat on the ground. I pulled my blankets out of the car. “Sleep on it, Zeke,” was the last thing I remember saying.
The next morning I woke up and Zeke and the Chevy were gone.
From the direction of the white highways I heard the Chevy’s roar, and in a second I was up and running toward the sound.
As I climbed the embankment I could hear the Brujo’s Caddy starting up. Zeke was right, it was a much bigger Engine. I hopped over the rail in time to see Zeke easing the Chevy up to the line.
I ran up to him, my bare feet smarting from the rubble on the highway. I looked at his hands. The bandages were off and blood was already running down his arms. The Channels in the steering wheel were nearly twice as big as they had been. His hands couldn’t cover the gaps.
Zeke turned to me and smiled. “I’m gonna bury this sucker,” he said. “Hop in, Joe. You’re my lucky piece.”
“Are you crazy?” I screamed. “Don’t do this Zeke!”
I heard the Brujo’s voice. “Get out of the way, Joe. Tell Frank the Crank that I beat his son.”
“What?” I turned around. I was between the Caddy and the Chevy. A big driver reached me and pulled me out of the way. The start girl raised the green flag.
The two cars took off. The exhaust smelled like sulphur.
Since I was at the starting end of the track I didn’t see how it happened. Spectators at the far end said they saw the Brujo’s Caddy was ahead the whole way, until the ¾ mile marker. There the Chevy suddenly put on a burst of speed and passed the Caddy. Everyone agrees that the Chevy crossed the finish line first.
Only a couple people said that they actually saw the Pattern blow, or that they saw a whirlwind of light spin into the cabin with Zeke. Even the Brujo, driving right behind him, said that he couldn’t be sure what happened. But everyone could hear that Engine roaring like the wind in their ears and screaming like a calf at the slaughter.
The Chevy never slowed down. It left tracks of blood on white cement.
I hitched my way across California, Arizona, and Mexicana. Some drivers wouldn’t stop for me, but the ones that did knew who I was and wanted to talk about Zeke’s race. Except for my last ride, Naomi.
Somewhere in the middle of Texas she looked at me through the rear view mirror, blew air through her lips like a baby, and then laughed uproariously.
“You scared of a woman driver, Lucky Joe?” she yelled over the roar of the wind.
Was I? Naomi was one of the few female drivers on the Circuit; she was in her mid-thirties. They made fun of her off the highways. On the highways they tried their damnedest to beat her.
I shook my head no, for safety’s sake.
“You should be, Lucky, you should be. I think women are going to dominate racing soon.” She must have seen my disbelief. “Oh no? Tell me, Joey. What’s an Engine?”
“Everybody knows what an Engine is,” I said. “A demon.”
“A demon? An angry, vengeful spirit trapped in the pattern of a car.” She shut her eyes to consider this. We stayed perfectly on course.
Her eyes sprang open. She smiled. “Exactly right. A demon. But what is an Engine before you trap it?”
“That’s stupid…” I began, but then stopped. I remembered the beauty of the whirlwind spinning inside blue circles. “I give up. What is it?”
I snorted. “Think about it, Joey. If you trapped a creature, made it do what you wanted, whenever you wanted, and then destroyed it, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable calling the thing evil? Torturing an ‘angel’ would bring so much guilt to our manly drivers.”
I remembered Zeke, the tracks of blood. “You don’t know what you’re talking about lady. I’ve seen my friend… a guy, go zombi. That was no ‘angel’.”
“Even an angel might go insane.” She gestured dismissively with one hand. “And you’re right, the name ‘angel’ is meaningless. All names are meaningless.”
Naomi shut up suddenly. She was looking at me strangely. “Are you okay?”
I looked out the window and let the hot Texas wind blow tears off my face. Naomi drove on in silence. A long while later, when it was dark and we were half way into Kintucky, I only asked, “So why do women make better drivers?”
She chuckled. “Revenge.”
It was a late afternoon three days after she’d picked me up when Naomi stopped the car and let me out near my father’s farm. She had driven the whole way without sleeping. The cold October wind whipped at my clothes, tugged at my bedroll. She smiled up at me.
“Here you are, Lucky Joe.”
“Thanks, Naomi. I appreciate the lift.”
“Any time. Take care of yourself, now. And do me a favor; stay away from the Engines. Fall in love, settle down and be a farmer.”
“Okay, I promise.” Then I said: “What about you?”
She patted my hand with one scarred palm. “Good,” was all she said. Her eyes sparkled like no color at all. I watched her disappear before I turned my face to the wind and started down the embankment.
I walked the two miles from the highway breathing in the familiar smells of harvest. The corn was only half cut, though, and we were only weeks away from snow. A knot of fear cinched tight in my stomach.
I stepped up to the porch and pushed through the door. It was supper time. The family sat at the table, my Father at one end, Firstmother at the other, my two sisters and Sara in the middle. My place was empty.
My sisters swiveled in their chairs as I walked in, then quickly turned back to the table and dropped their eyes. Sarah looked up, smiled slightly, and started to get up. Her belly was hugely round beneath her dress.
Firstmother quietly said, “No.” Sara sat down awkwardly.
Father chewed slowly, his eyes on his plate.
I pulled out my chair. The scrape sounded deafening. I sat down. There was not much food on the table.
I wanted a confrontation. I wanted screaming, yelling. I wanted punishment, hard labor in the fields. They gave me silence.
When they had finished eating, each person drifted away from the table and went to their rooms.
Much later I heard a timid knock at my door. Just as I covered myself Sara stepped in. She was holding a plate of beans and cornbread.
“I thought you might want some,” she said.
“Thank you.” I tore of hunks off cornbread and sopped them in the beans. It was delicious. Sara watched me eat.
“When is it coming?” I said after awhile.
“December twenty-third,” she said. “His name will be Elijah.”
“You seem pretty sure.”
“I am sure. A mother knows these things.”
When I finished she took the empty plate from me and touched the back of my neck. “You’d better get some sleep.”
I woke up just before dawn feeling warm and comfortable beneath the blanket. I could hear my Father moving around in the kitchen. It was time for chores, then school, and then maybe a walk with Zeke out to the City….
It suddenly felt very cold in the room. I pulled on my clothes and stepped out into the kitchen. The first light glowed through the frosted windows. First frost, and the crops not even half in. I heard the front door bang shut. I followed Father out into the yard.
He was gazing at the husks glistening like a glassblower’s interpretation of corn. His back was stiff, straight. I stood next to him and stared into the fields.
“I know it’s too late,” I said, “but I would like to help.”
He was silent for a long while. “What happened to Zeke?”
“He… died. In a wreck.”
Father looked at me, his eyes squinted tight. “Ain’t there something you should be doing?” He jerked his head toward the Lander’s place. “Get back here before noon or don’t come back.”
“Go.” I took off at a jog.
In the daylight the house looked like a wreck. I stepped up onto the porch, boards creaking beneath my feet, and knocked on the door. It swung open. There was no answer. I knocked again, taking a step inside. “Mr. Landers?” I said quietly. “Frank? It’s me, Sam’s boy, Joseph.”
I walked further into the house. The rooms were strewn with garbage, and there was a terrible stink from the kitchen. I found him in the back bedroom. At first I though he was dead.
One eye slid open, then slowly closed. I waited a minute, and then said again, “Mr. Landers?”
Without opening his eyes, he said, “I know, boy. I know. I’ve known for a week.” His voice was hoarse.
He was drunk. I pressed on. “Mr. Landers, Zeke was in an accident.” I told him what some of the spectators had said. I did not mention the tracks of blood.
Finally Frank’s eyes opened again. “I know what happened. I felt it the minute he went. I guess you ain’t so lucky after all, huh? Now get the hell out of my house.”
His eyes closed again. I left.
The harvest came in, most of it. The snows came a week later, and on December 24th Sara gave birth to Elijah.
On Christmas Eve Firstmother killed one of the Chickens and wrapped it up. She handed it to me and told me to take it over to the Landers’ place.
“Even sinners must eat on Christmas,” she told me. I headed out into the cold, the chicken heavy under my arm.
I had been visiting Frank about once a week. We had talked about everything except Zeke, and racing. So in a way we’d been talking about nothing at all.
The snow was drifted up onto the porch. There were no lights on in the house. I went in, half expecting in each room to see Frank’s frozen body curled up in a corner. The house was nearly as cold as outside. He was not home. I thought he might be in the outhouse, so I went out the back door.
There was a light on in the shed.
I stepped into the warmth of the place. Every lantern was lit and a fire burned in a shallow stone pit to one side of the room.
Frank was working on the Pontiac. He was moving quickly, scrubbing the old black and silver paint off the car. He had already cleared most of the hood.
When the frigid wind blasted in he turned to me with eyes that were clear and stone-cold sober. “Shut the damn door,” he said. “We’ve got to talk, Lucky Joe.”
It was only June, but already corn crowded the embankments. Ahead of us, heat shimmered on the white highway.
The Engine roared like the wind in your ears and screamed like a calf at the slaughter. It was a mean, rage-filled sound.
It sounded like Zeke.
Frank turned at the noise. He slammed the hood of the car down with a bang. He frowned. He looked completely calm, like the Brujo, or Naomi.
Frank the Crank was a pro.
I was scared shitless.
“Do you think we can take him?” I said.
I could make out the shiny grillwork, the headlights reflecting like cat’s eyes in the sun, the silver rectangle of windshield. The engine grew louder. The familiar patterns of the car were just becoming clear. Frank’s voice was rough. “We will.” He looked me in the eye. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I lied.
“Bull shit, Joseph. But it doesn’t matter. Just remember to concentrate.”
He looked away.
“—you should be the driver. Let me—”
“Shut up, son.” The car was suddenly there, bearing down on us. For a moment I thought it was going to run us down. At the last moment the car braked hard, went into a skid, and sprayed gravel at me and Frank. The car slid to a stop with the driver’s side door facing us.
The engine wound down from a howl to a rumbling growl, and then was silenced. An ugly knot of fear tightened in my stomach. “Father, Son, Spirit, Lord…” I heard myself saying, and then shut my mouth. It was too late for prayers now, and I was certainly in no position to ask.
The door cracked open.
The overpowering smell of shit and blood nearly made me puke.
The door swung wide, and I saw first one booted leg, then another touch the ground. The thing stood up to full height and stretched its arms toward us. It cocked its head sideways and leered at us with a mouth of rotted teeth. “Joey! Poppa! Good… to see you!”
The thing had Zeke’s voice, Zeke’s wild red hair, and Zeke’s broad shoulders and height.
But the shell was empty. The body was starved, the clothes ripped and soiled, the skin a sickly white.
Only the eyes—Zeke’s narrow eyes—seemed animate. They flashed in the sunlight, like coals left burning during the day for the night fires.
The thing laughed.
“Aren’t you… glad to see me?” It stepped forward and Frank picked up a rock.
“Stay the hell away from me.”
“Poppa!” The thing shut the car door, leaned against the hood. I almost gasped, the gesture was so like Zeke. The creature’s gaze swung toward me. “So, Joey. What do you and this… piece of shit… want?”
I fought down my anger. “I want a race.”
It laughed again, a dry chuckle. “A race. Joey wants to race. We haven’t… raced together… in a long time.”
“From here to Busted Bridge. Two miles. One shot.”
The thing grinned, shambled forward. “But what are the… stakes. What are the stakes?”
“Pink slips,” I said.
“Pink slips?” It cocked his head. “But I have no… need for a car.” Then the thing smiled. “No. Not… a car.” It touched its chest in mock depreciation. “I need another… vehicle.” It pointed one long finger at me. Zeke’s finger. “This one wears thin. You are pink… and fresh.”
A thrill of terror ran down my spine. “Exactly,” I said. “I want him back.”
It laughed. “You want my faithful Engine?”
For the first time its gaze fell on our car, parked behind us. It moved forward, its smell rushing before it. I felt bile burning at the back of my throat as it stepped past me. It looked cautiously at the blue circle painted around the car, then stepped over it. It held out one pale hand.
“Get away from it,” Frank growled.
Its hand hovered over the car. The thing stared intently at the patterns from hood to trunk. Then it hissed: “Who is it?”
Frank and me said nothing.
“Who… is it?”
Frank shrugged elaborately. “Maybe nobody you know.”
“I know… everyone.” It slowly touched one finger to the silver pattern painted on the hood. The grotesque face curled into an expression of surprise when the lines did not burn. “It’s empty!”
“So? Do we have a deal?”
It nodded, laughing again. “It is just… a car!” It walked back to its car, shaking its head.
I felt Frank’s hand on my shoulder. “I want you to thank your folks, Joe, for all the help they’ve done me.”
He held out his hand. We shook, his scars feeling rough against my palm.
“Now remember. Let me do the work. It’s between me and Zeke now.” He smiled. Like Zeke. End of argument.
I walked to our car. A silver ox was painted on the driver’s side door. Symbol of the farmer, Frank had said. On the other door, where the creature could see it clearly, was a silver lion.
I sat down in the Pontiac, pulled the door shut, and placed my hands over the channels. A part of me wanted to cut my hands and shed some of my own blood in this race. I stared ahead through the windshield so as not to see the thing that wasn’t Zeke in the Chevy next to me.
The Pontiac was surrounded by a pattern of blue paint drawn on white cement. Diagonal lines shot off from that pattern on the side opposite the Chevy and joined to another, smaller circle. Frank sat in that circle, holding a knife. He looked at me and nodded.
I slowly turned my head to face the Chevy. I yelled, “Ready?” The thing grinned and the Chevy Engine screamed to life.
“Start your… Engine!” it rasped, then threw back its head and howled.
I nodded to Frank. For a moment he looked at me. There was hope and fear in his eyes. He stared at the knife in his hand. With a quick movement he plunged it into his chest.
The Pontiac engine roared. A wave of heat rolled up my arms.
On the pavement where Frank had been sitting there was only an empty corpse.
I looked over at the Chevy. “Now, you fucker!”
The Pontiac bucked and flew forward. I did not scream. I could feel a steady heat, like a murderous calm, flowing up my arms from the channels..
The white highways stretched like a snake before us. There were two miles between us and Busted Bridge, and I had never really driven before. My Engine was untested, untamed.
But it was effortless. The wheel would jerk in my hands and suddenly we’d be skirting a pothole that I hadn’t even seen. Frank’s spirit gave itself up willingly, threw its entire being in the Pontiac’s engine. There was not even any need to conserve anything for a second race.
The highway made a slow curve, and then the columns of Dead City were rising before us like a mountain range. After a mile and a half the Pontiac and the Chevy were still even.
Then a searing pain in my arms nearly made me jerk my hands from the wheel. I held on. I heard the creature scream as we passed it.
We were almost to the edge of the City when the Chevy’s pattern blew. In my rear view mirror I could see blue flames explode from the pattern on the hood. The Chevy skewed sideways across the road. The car ground against the railing, spewing sparks, and then swerved back onto the lane.
But it was not under control. The car began to spin, almost gracefully, creating bright red ovals on the white cement. The car crashed through the opposite railing.
I yelled and slammed on the Pontiac’s brakes. I nearly lost control myself before I could turn the car around. As we approached the split railing of Busted Bridge I felt my arms go cold, and the Pontiac choked to a halt. I jumped out.
Zeke was on fire. He fled from the Chevy in a stumbling half-run, and then dropped to his knees. He looked up with pain-filled eyes and saw me.
Behind him, the car exploded with a light that was no color at all.
Father died a year later. Firstmother crumpled up with grief and followed him into the grave in six months. Sara’s still a young woman, and she makes a good wife. My brothers and sisters that were her children have become my sons and daughters. Sara’s pregnant with the first of mine, and it looks like I won’t need a secondmother for many years.
Unless Lydia Mitchum ever shows up here again. She ran off about six months back from the Preacher and the rumors have been coming by about her and some woman driver. I think of her—and her green shirt and her breasts—sometimes. But not too much.
Father’s land is mine now. You can make a good living off it if you’re not afraid to work, and I know there will always be food on the table for the kids. I don’t race anymore. The farthest I want to travel is to the edge of my acres, and only as fast as the horse pulling the plow ahead of me.
The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I eased out of bed quiet enough to not wake Sara. I walked over to the Landers’ place in the cool night air, and I stood on the porch of the dilapidated house. I could see the two gravestones on the hill, spaced just a few feet apart.
I went around to the shed behind the house and unchained the doors. Moonlight spilled across the silver and black car. I rummaged around in the shed a while, looking at wrenches and brushes and rusted car parts. At one point I climbed behind the wheel and looked out through the windshield. I lightly touched the channels. The car was empty, completely empty.
When I was all done remembering, I unscrewed the caps from the kerosene lamps and sloshed liquid up and down the walls and across the car.
I stood near the back of the house. The shed burned for a long while. There must have been a big can of kerosene somewhere inside, because suddenly a whole side of the shed exploded out and the roof tumbled down.
It was dawn before I got home. My house looked solid and clean in the growing light. Sara stepped out onto the porch as I walked up. She had a worried look on her face.
“What is it?” she asked.
I shook my head and touched her rounded belly beneath her gown. Sara said we would name him Joseph. “Nothing.” It was time for the morning chores, and from inside the house one of the children started crying.
It was a happy sound.
As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side….