The truck's navigation lights conked out again. Jascha delivered a resounding thump to the dashboard, unsettling some dust and rebounding his sunglasses onto the floor. No dice. No lights either. He sighed and resigned himself to driving by Zen acceleration until he could get a look at the electrical system again. It sucked, but really, what could be expected from a free vehicle? Other than the finicky truck, life was good. He had ice cream in the cooler on a block of ice, beer on top of that and some other choice groceries he'd been living without for the last couple months. Jascha settled back into the dilapidated, plastic bench seat and enjoyed the colors of the fading desert sunset.
He passed a car parked by the side of the road. That in itself was odd, being as he didn't recognize the car, and nobody lived out this way that he didn't know. The driver didn't even acknowledge him as he went by, just stared straight ahead, hands locked in a death grip on the steering wheel. Jascha processed that for a couple seconds, then pulled over.
The stranger's glasses glowed red in the lights of Jascha's tail lights as he reversed. He parked and got out to see if there was something he could do. Maybe it wasn't the safest plan, but he couldn't live in a world where strangers turned away. If he could help, he would.
Jascha tugged up his collar against the cold night air and bent to knock on the window. The reflection of his face was pale, and his red, dreadlocked hair standing up around his head looked like the leaves of a palm tree. Or an alien. Maybe that's why the guy barely glanced at Jascha when he rolled down the window.
Jascha tried not to let his bemusement show on his face. "Hey," he said. "Did your car break down?"
The guy still didn't turn his head, but his profile showed a fine, sensitive mouth pulled down at the corners, and dark, curly, nicely cut hair. "Yeah," he said finally. "Something like that." His voice was soft and rough like he'd been crying.
Jascha cleared his throat, giving himself time to frame a reply. "Are you okay?" It was the only thing he could think to ask, and he felt kind of dumb saying it, but it got his first response.
The guy took a deep, shuddering breath, laughed, and then wiped his eyes, pushing his glasses out of the way and grinding the heels of his hands into the eye sockets. "No, not really."
"Oh. Uh, can I give you a lift?"
"No, thanks. I'll be fine."
Jascha frowned. "It's night time. In the desert. You aren't even wearing a proper coat. I can't leave you out here."
The guy looked at him and bit his lip. His eyes wavered with indecision. "I don't feel good about leaving my car."
"Oh, hey. That's no problem. I've got some chains in the back. I'll tow you back to my place." Something wasn't right here, but Jascha couldn't tell what. There was no way he was leaving this guy alone in the desert at night.
The stranger frowned and raised his voice a bit. "Look, I don't even know you. I'm not going anywhere with you." He had a northeastern accent. Cultured. Educated. Jascha remembered it well.
Jascha snorted. "That's not how we do things around here. We take care of our neighbors. Heck. We even take care of strangers dumb enough to go into the wilderness and get lost."
That wasn't necessarily true, but it should have been. There were a lot of things the world should have been and weren't.
"Go another mile down this road and you're into a huge tract of government-protected nothing. Maybe the occasional coyote."
The guy sighed and ran a hand through his hair, gripped a handful and tipped his head back against the headrest. Then he deflated, shoulders sinking and head falling forward. "Okay," he said in a voice that was barely audible.
"Good," Jascha said and headed to the back of his truck to get the chains. He kept his expression carefully neutral as he felt around under the bumper for something solid to hook to. He did and then let out a good bit of length. No point having the stranger ram the back of Jascha's truck if he needed to put on the brakes. It looked like he was either strung out on something or in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Either way, Jascha wanted to give him a second or two more to react.
"Hey," the guy said, poking his head out the window. "Isn't this illegal?"
Jascha laughed. "Not unless we get caught." He stood up and dusted his hands off on his thighs. "But I'm feeling pretty lucky tonight. How about you?"
"Not really." The stranger ducked back inside his car.
"No, I didn't think so," Jascha murmured to himself as he climbed into the cab.
Peter loosened his grip on the steering wheel and felt his joints creak. There was a reason it was illegal to tow cars like this. The dreadlocked guy's truck turned into a long driveway, dragging Peter's Toyota behind. His headlights briefly illuminated a rough-hewn wooden sign. It read: New Earth Community Research Center-- Birthplace of the Eco-house.
Peter only got a moment to wonder, then he was off again on the video game-like, seesawing trip through the night. He couldn't see well, but it seemed that there were glassed-in earth mounds on either side of the road. Some had the strangest rooflines. Peter peeled his gaze off the oddness in time to see the red lights go on in front of him. He slammed on the brakes.
They had pulled up in front of another glass-fronted mound, but it was dark inside. The dreadlock guy got out of his truck and came up to Peter's window. Peter rolled it down. Cold, spring air washed over him. The guy placed a hand on the door and leaned down to look at Peter through the open window. He had strong, calloused fingers and his red dreadlocks fell out of an untidy knot at the back of his head. His eyes were an intense blue and his skin was one big freckle.
"You can bring your stuff in," the guy said, patted the door and turned toward the structure. Peter supposed it was an eco-house, whatever that meant. He also didn't have any 'stuff'. Only the... Peter's fingers tingled with the fear and adrenaline that coursed through his system again. The thing he couldn't think about. The reason why he had come all the way out to somewhere he thought was totally deserted.
Dreadlock Guy turned at the door to his place. "You coming?"
"Yeah." Peter rolled up his window, made sure all his doors were locked and then patted the pocket with his key in it to make sure it was still there. He would stay the night and then try again in the morning. He was so tired. Tired of being a freak. Tired of his life. He got out of the car and walked the few feet necessary to put a solid, wooden door between himself and the gun.