The Passage Page 13

Now the whole oil industry was under federal protection, and it seemed like practically everybody he knew from the old days had disappeared. After that Minneapolis thing, the bombing at the gas depot in Secaucus, the subway attack in L.A. and all the rest, and, of course, what happened in Iran or Iraq or whichever it was, the whole economy had locked up like a bad transmission. With his knees and the smoking and the thing on his record, no goddamn way they were taking Grey in Homeland, or anywhere else. He'd been out of work most of a year when he'd gotten the call. He'd thought for sure it was more rig work, maybe for some foreign supplier. They'd somehow made it sound that way without actually saying it, and he was surprised when he'd driven to the address and found it was just an empty storefront in an abandoned strip mall near the Dallas fairgrounds, with white soap smeared on the windows. The place had once housed a video store; Grey could still make out the name, Movie World West, in a ghostly formation of missing letters on the grimy stucco over the door. The place next to it had been a Chinese restaurant; another, a dry cleaner's; the rest, you couldn't say. He'd driven up and down in front a couple of times, thinking he must have had the address wrong and reluctant to climb from the air-conditioned cab of his truck for some pointless goose chase, before he'd stopped. It was about a hundred degrees out, typical for August in north Texas but still nothing you could ever get used to, the air thick and dirty-smelling, the sun gleaming like the head of a hammer coming down. The door was locked but there was a buzzer; he rang and waited a minute as the sweat started to pool under his shirt, then heard a big ring of keys jangling on the other side and the clunk of the unlocking door.

They'd set up a little desk and a couple of file cabinets in the back; the room was still full of empty racks that had once held DVDs, and a lot of tangled wires and other junk was hanging from open spaces in the droppanel ceiling. Leaned against the rear wall of the store was a life-size cardboard figure, coated with a film of dust, of some movie star Grey couldn't place, a bald black dude in wraparounds, with biceps that bulged under his T-shirt like a couple of canned hams he was trying to smuggle out of a supermarket. The movie was nothing Grey remembered, either. Grey filled out the form but the people there, a man and a woman, barely seemed to look at it. While they typed into the computer they asked him to pee in a cup and then gave him a polygraph, but that was standard stuff. He did his best not to feel like he was lying even when he was telling the truth, and when they asked him about the time he'd done at Beeville, as he knew they would, he told them the story straight out: no way to hide it with the wires, and it was a matter of record besides, especially in Texas, with the website you could go to and see everybody's faces and all the rest. But even this seemed not to be a problem. They seemed to know a lot about him already, and most of their questions had to do with his personal life, the stuff you couldn't learn except by asking. Did he have friends? (Not really.) Did he live alone? (When hadn't he?) Did he have any living family? (Just an aunt in Odessa he hadn't seen in about twenty years and a couple of cousins he wasn't even sure he knew the names of.) The trailer park where he was living, up in Allen-who were his neighbors? (Neighbors?) And so on, in that vein. Everything he told them seemed to make them happier and happier. They were trying to hide it, but you could see it on their faces, plain as the words in a book. When he decided they weren't police, he realized he'd been thinking maybe they were.

Two days later-by which time he realized he'd never learned the names of the man and the woman, couldn't even have said what they looked like-he was on the plane to Cheyenne. They'd explained the money and the part about not being able to leave for a year, which was all right by him, and made it clear that he shouldn't tell anybody where he was going, which, in fact, he couldn't; he didn't know. At the airport in Cheyenne he was met by a man in a black tracksuit, whom he'd later come to know as Richards-a wiry guy no more than five foot six with a permanent scowl on his face. Richards walked him to the curb; two other men, who must have come in on different flights, were standing by a van. Richards opened the driver's door and returned with a cloth bag the size of a pillowcase. He held it open like a mouth.

"Wallets, cell phones, any personal stuff, photographs, anything with writing on it, right down to the pen you got at the bank," he told them. "I don't care if it's a f**king fortune cookie. In it goes."

They emptied their pockets, hoisted their duffels into the luggage rack, and climbed in through the side. It was only when Richards closed the door behind them that Grey realized the windows were blacked out. From the outside the vehicle looked like an ordinary van, but inside it was a different story: the driver's compartment was sealed off, the passenger compartment nothing but a metal box with vinyl bench seats bolted to the floor. Richards had said they were allowed to trade first names but that was all. The other two men were Jack and Sam. They looked so much like Grey he might have been staring into a mirror: middle-aged white guys with buzz cuts and puffed red hands and workingman's tans that stopped at the wrists and collar. Grey's first name was Lawrence, but he'd barely ever used it. It sounded odd coming from his mouth. As soon as he said it, shaking hands with the one named Sam, he felt like somebody different, like he'd boarded the plane in Dallas as one person and landed in Cheyenne as another.

In the dark van, it was impossible to tell where they were going, and a little nauseating. For all Grey knew, they were just circling the airport. With nothing to do or see, they all fell asleep soon enough. When Grey woke up he had no sense of the hour. He also had to pee like a jackrabbit. That was the Depo. He rose from his seat and rapped his knuckles on the sliding panel at the front of the compartment.

"Yo, I gotta stop," he said.

Richards slid the window open, affording Grey a view through the van's windshield. The sun had set; the road ahead, a two-lane blacktop, was dark and empty. In the distance he glimpsed a purple line of light where the sky met a mountain ridge.

"I need to take a leak," Grey explained. "Sorry."

In the passenger compartment behind him, the other men were rousing. Richards reached onto the floor and passed Grey a clear plastic bottle with a wide mouth.

"I gotta pee in this?"

"That's the idea."

Richards closed the window without another word. Grey sat back down on the bench and examined the bottle in his hand. He figured it was big enough. But the thought of taking his equipment out in the van, right in front of the other men, like this was no big deal, made all the muscles around his bladder clamp like a slipknot.

"No way I'm using that," the one named Sam said. His eyes were closed; he was sitting with his hands folded at his lap. His face wore a look of intense concentration. "I'm just holding it."

They rode a little farther. Grey tried to think of something that could keep his mind off his bursting bladder, but this only made matters worse. It felt like an ocean sloshing around inside him. They hit a pothole and the ocean crashed against the shoreline. He heard himself groan.

"Hey!" he said, banging on the window again. "Hey in there! I've got an emergency!"

Richards opened the panel. "What is it now?"

"Listen," Grey said, and pushed his head through the narrow space. He lowered his voice so the others wouldn't hear. "I can't. Seriously. I can't use the bottle. You've got to pull over."

"Just hold it, for f**ksake."

"I'm serious. I'm begging you. I can't ... I can't go like this. I have a medical condition."

Richards sighed with irritation. Their eyes met quickly in the rearview, and Grey wondered if he knew. "Stay where I can see you and no looking around. I f**king mean it."

He pulled the vehicle to the side of the road. Grey was muttering under his breath, "C'mon, c'mon ... " Then the door opened and he was out, sprinting away from the rumbling light of the van. He stumbled down the embankment, each second ticking off like a bomb between his thighs. Grey was in some kind of pasture. A sliver of moon was up, wicking the tips of the grass with an icy glow. He had to get at least fifty feet away, he figured, maybe more, to do the thing right. He came to a fence line and despite his knees and the pressure of his bladder he was up and over it like a shot. He heard Richards's voice behind him yelling for him to stop, f**king stop right now, goddamnit, and then he heard Richards yelling at the other men to do the same. Dewy grass swished against Grey's pant legs, drenched the toes of his boots. A dot of red light was skipping across the field in front of him, but who knew what that was. He could smell cows, feel their presence around him, somewhere in the field. A fresh surge of panic pressed upon him: what if they were watching?

But it was too late, he simply had to go, there was no way he could wait another second. He stopped where he was and unzipped his fly and peed so hard into the darkness he moaned with relief. No tepid arc of gold: the water shot out of him like the contents of a busted hydrant. He peed and peed and peed some more. God almighty, it was the most wonderful feeling in the world, peeing like this, like a great plug had been pulled out of him. He was almost glad he'd waited so long.

Then it was over. His tank was dry. He stood a moment, feeling the cool night air on his exposed flesh. An immense calm filled him, an almost heavenly well-being. The field stretched around him like a vast carpet, creaking with the sound of crickets. He lit a Parliament from the pack in his shirt pocket, and as the smoke hit his lungs he tipped his face to the horizon. He'd barely noticed the moon before, a rind of light, like a fingernail trimming, suspended over the mountains. The sky was full of stars.

He turned to look in the direction he'd come. He could see the headlights of the van where it was parked by the side of the road, and Richards waiting there in his tracksuit, something bright and shiny in his hand. Grey climbed the fence in time to see Jack emerging from the field as well, then spied Sam crossing the roadway from the far side. They all converged on the van at the same instant.

Richards was standing in the conical glare of the headlights, his hands on his hips. Whatever he had been holding was gone from sight.

"Thanks," Grey said over the sound of the idling engine. He finished the last of his cigarette and tossed it on the pavement. "I really had to go."

"Fuck you," Richards said. "You have no idea." Jack and Sam were looking at the ground. Richards tipped his head at the open door of the van. "All of you, in. And not one more f**king word."

They took their seats in chastened silence; Richards started the engine and pulled back onto the roadway. That was when Grey realized it. He didn't have to look at them to know. The other two, Jack and Sam: they were just like him. And something else. The thing Richards had been holding, which Grey guessed was now tucked away inside the waistband of his tracksuit or stashed in the glove compartment; that little dancing light in the grass, like a single dot of blood.

One more step, Grey knew, and Richards would have shot him.

Once a month, Grey took a shot of Depo-Povera, and every morning a little dot of a pill, star-shaped, of spironolactone. Grey had been following this regimen for a little over six years; it was a condition of his release.

And the truth was, he didn't mind. He didn't have to shave as much, there was that. The spironolactone, an antiandrogen, decreased the size of the testicles; since he'd begun taking it, he could shave every second or third day, and his hair was finer and less coarse, like when he was a boy. His skin was clearer and softer, even with the smoking. And of course there were the "psychological benefits," as the prison shrink had called them. Things didn't get to him the way they had, the way a feeling could twist inside him for days at a time, like a piece of glass he'd swallowed. He slept like a rock and never remembered his dreams. Whatever it was that made him pull over the truck that day, fifteen years ago-the day that started the whole thing-was long gone. Whenever he sent his mind back there, to that period of his life and all that came after, he still felt bad about it. But even this feeling was indistinct, a picture out of focus. It was like feeling bad about a rainy day, something no one could have helped.

The Depo, though, played hell with his bladder, because it was a steroid. As for not wanting anybody to see him, he guessed that was just part of the way his mind worked now. The shrink told him about this, and like everything else, it had come to pass exactly as he'd said. The inconveniences were slight, but Grey spent a certain amount of time looking away from things. Kids, for one, which was why he'd taken so well to rig work. Pregnant women. Highway rest stops. Most of what was on television-programs he'd watched before without a second thought, not just sexy things but things like boxing or even the news. He wasn't allowed within two hundred yards of a school or day-care center, which was fine by him-he never drove if he could help it between the hours of three and four and would go blocks out of his way just to avoid a school bus. He didn't even like the color yellow. It was all a little weird, and certainly nothing he could explain to anyone, but it sure beat the hell out of prison. More than that: it beat the way he lived before, always feeling like he was a bomb that was about to go off.

If his old man could see him now, he thought. With the way he felt on the meds, Grey might even have been able to see his way to forgiving him for the things he'd done. The prison shrink, Dr. Wilder, had spoken a lot about forgiveness. Forgiveness was just about his all-time, number one favorite word. Forgiveness, Wilder explained, was the first step on a long road, the long road of recovery. It was a road, but sometimes it was a door; and only by going through this door could you make peace with your past, and face the inner demon, the "bad you" inside the "good you." Wilder used his fingers a lot while he was talking, making little quotation marks in the air. Grey thought Wilder was basically full of shit. Probably he said the same crap to everybody. But Grey had to admit Wilder had a point with the "bad you" stuff. The bad Grey was real enough, and for a time, most of his life in fact, the bad Grey was really the only Grey there was. So that was the best thing about the meds, and why he planned to go on taking them the rest of his life, even after the court-ordered ten years were over: the bad Grey was nobody he ever wanted to meet again.

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