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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 8

Yves cranks down the window. It's windy, but between the gusts he can hear a thousand kinds of frog clicking and croaking and beeping at the moon. The air is warm and thick, the night suffused with an extra glow by a heavy soup of spring humidity.

His eighteen-wheeler tears through the fog banks, sending them sloshing away into ghostly, symmetrical twists on either side of the wake trail. The engine keens.

A line of palm trees flashes by in his headlights.

He glances at the map pinned to his visor, checks the rolling digits on the tripmeter, then shifts down to ninth gear in anticipation of the curve ahead. The carriage bucks a bit. "Come on now," urges Yves, wagging the clutch. He drops into eighth.

The freeway bends. The moon holds still. Yves eases the rig around, hand over hand on the wheel, coaxing the next stretch of the immediate future into view. He starts to whistle a Johnny Cash tune.

And then there's a guy stumbling into the middle of the road.

Yves yanks on the engine brake, shifts and spins the wheel wildly to and then fro, describing an imaginary safe trajectory he can only hope the cab and trailer will follow as the physics of the moment catch up to them. In the blink of an eye before they do he watches the strange, skinny figure collapse across the dotted line, his body plied from the fog by the moving headlights, haloed by a shifting host of shadowed rays.

The truck dodges the body, the tires at the back of the trailer skittering and squealing. Yves plunges the brakes and brings the rig to a shuddering but controlled halt on the shoulder in a hail of flying gravel. The door flies open and he hits the ground running, pelting across the asphalt to the guy lying in the lanes.

He's already stirring.

"Jesus God I thought I hit you!" shouts Yves. "Are you okay? Fella?"

The guy is breathing hard. "You ran over my leg," he gasps.

"Jesus!" yells Yves, kneeling down. He glances nervously back at the bend. "We have to get you off the road!" Without waiting for a reply he scoops the frail form over his shoulder and starts loping toward the gravel, speeding up as a sweep of headlights play around the corner.

He stumbles as two cars blast past, their wind pushing at his back. He drops to his knees beside the guardrail, lit red by the lights on the back of his truck, and gently lowers his charge to the ground. He's wearing a mud-splattered white shirt and a twisted blue tie. He's a teenager -- maybe sixteen or seventeen -- and he doesn't struggle against the pain.

Yves takes a bracing breath. "Can you feel your leg at all, son?"

"No. It's artificial."

Yves is startled. He frowns. "It's a what?"

"It's fake," pants the youth, still working to find his wind. "Thank you for your help. I can manage myself from here."

Yves takes out a handkercheif and wipes his brow. "I can't rightly just leave you like this, kid. Are you crazy?"

"No," he replies evenly, rocking his torso back and forth oddly and then using the momentum to hoist himself into sitting position. In the red lights of the truck his nose carves a blade-like shadow across his sharp cheeks. "You should leave now. You're in danger."

Yves frowns. "What are you talking about? From what?"

Dogs bark. From within the mangroves on the other side of the freeway flashlight beams glimmer, growing closer. "From them," says the youth.

"Cops?"

The youth shakes his head. "There's no reason to involve yourself."

"Like hell there isn't," grunts Yves. "You think I'm going to run over a crippled guy and then leave him to the dogs? What kind of a Christian would I be there, huh?"

The youth raises his gaze to look Yves in the eyes, but says nothing.

They make for the cab. Yves offers the guy help getting in, but he doesn't want it. He uses his broken artificial leg as a crutch, hopping along after it, his other leg equally stiff and bony beneath torn blue trousers. He jacks himself up onto the sideboard in a discomfiting, almost insectile way that suggests to Yves that an amputated leg is the least of this guy's challenges. He shakes his head and jogs around the rumbling grille to take his mount.

The eighteen-wheeler noses back onto the freeway, Yves clutching and shifting in a thoughtless, automatic way. He peeks in the mirrors, watching as a group of shadowed figures step into the fog still glowing in the truck's departing lights. A brace of dogs slink and sniff at their heels. One of the figures points at Yves' truck.

Yves blinks. "Who are they, kid?"

"It's the Org. I'm running away."

"What the hell's the Org?"

The youth turns to look at him in the darkened cab. "They kidnapped me five years ago, when I was eleven, and have been holding me against my will ever since," he says seriously. "They're organized, funded, and ruthless. They'll never stop looking for me."

"Jesus Christ," says Yves, glancing in the mirror again. All he can see is fog. "It's like a cult, something like that?"

"Something like that," agrees the youth with a barely perceptible nod, turning to face forward again.

"Did they...did they do this to you?" asks Yves, mouth suddenly dry. "Did they take your leg, to sacrifice to Satan or something?"

"No," the youth says to the windshield. "I was born like this. Do you know what thalidomide is?"

Yves chews his lip, squinting. "Is it that Nazi drug that made all them flipper-babies?"

The youth raises his left arm, then tugs back the sleeve. The arm is artificial. Unlike the leg, which is a naked skeleton of metal, the arm is smooth and pink and plastic. He then showcases the right arm, and it is the same. The youth's hands are claws, shaped almost whimsically, perhaps cruelly, like real anatomy. There are even sculpted crease lines on the immobile, lifeless knuckles.

"God damn," says Yves. He wipes his hand down his face, shifts into seventh. "The name's Yves. Yves LeRoche. Most guys call me Frenchy."

The youth introduces himself in turn with a polite bow of the head. "Mississauga."

"You an Indian, Mississauga?"

"Yes."

"That's all right by me. I ain't no bigot. I even give coloured guys rides. Shit, I don't care."

Mississauga says nothing. Yves changes lanes to pass an overloaded Winnebago clunking along by the shoulder, hazards flashing. He watches it shrink in the side mirror, then notices the Indian youth staring at his own mirror. "I think they're okay," offers Yves.

"I'm not watching the Winnebago."

Yves gets a flash of gooseflesh across his shoulders. "What are you looking at, son?" he ventures.

Mississauga turns to him, brow sloped forlornly. For a moment the kid looks genuinely worried. (For a moment, he looks nearly human.) "It's the Org," he breathes.

Three sets of headlights have appeared behind them, swinging around the furthest bend and quickly closing the distance to the eighteen-wheeler. Their lights carve shafts in the fog, pointing ahead of them like groping fingers.

"Damn," says Yves. "God damn. They're persistent buggers, you say?"

"You can't imagine," says Mississauga.

"What are they gonna do if they catch you? They gonna hurt you?" Yves turns to the kid, frowning. "They gonna kill you?"

Mississauga shakes his head. "Worse," he says. "They'll force me to go back."

"God damn," says Yves again. His eyes flick to the mirror. He shifts into tenth.

"Drop me off at next place you can safely stop, Mr. LeRoche," advises Mississauga calmly. "These are dangerous people. You owe me nothing. Keep your life simple, and walk away from this now."

Yves swallows, eyes on the road. His hands tighten on the wheel. "I don't think I can rightly do that, son."

Mississauga offers him a small, tight smile. When he speaks again it is in a new voice, crisp and imperative: "In that case, Mr. LeRoche, you must evade those cars. You must do so immediately. If we lose them now, I have a chance. If they force us over, it's finished."

Both of their faces are illuminated by the reflected glare of the swarm of headlights arranged behind them, now just feet from the trailer's edge. The kid's eyes are wide as they pierce into the trucker, the whites seeming to glow around the dark pupils, and there's something unsettling in that look that compels Yves to action.

Yves glances in the mirror again, then takes a breath. He turns back to the hard-faced youth. "Don't worry, kid," he says, patting the dashboard. "This baby packs a wallop. Besides, I know a few manoeuvres."

Yves double-clutches, gears down and hits the hammer. The truck lurches forward, pressing them into their seats. The engine bellows, stacks blasting. The Org cars lag temporarily behind.

Yves toggles a switch on the citizen band receiver and then draws out the microphone on a coiled tether, clicking the contact with his thumb. "Breaker, Breaker: one-nine. This is Frenchy -- I'm eastbound on fifty-four, and I got trouble. Thirty-three, thirty-three. Come back?"

The radio squelches. A voice comes through, gruff and tired: "This is Jake's Bacon on ya, five miles up river. Kick it, Frenchy."

"I got bad apples up my tandems, Jake's Bacon. Need some help shaking 'em loose, over."

Another voice cuts in. "Aceline on one-nine. I'm tailing Jake's Bacon up here. What's the fuss, driver?"

"I'm carrying a boy -- he was kidnapped by some kind of cult, but he escaped. They're chasing us down, trying to take him back." Yves checks the mirror, eyes widening as the pursuing headlights swell in his view. "Ruthless sons of it, too. Not giving up easy, over."

"That ain't right," says Jake's Bacon. "The Jehovahs did a number on my first wife. Frenchy, hang tight. We're gonna set up a lock up where the slab goes wide, a mile off the parkway exchange. Copy that?"

"I hear ya. We're real grateful back here, good buddy."

"Nobody messes with a kid on my road," adds Aceline. "I see you, Bacon. Can we scare up a third? Over."

Another burst of static. "One-niner, one-niner: this is Missus Thor on fifty-four east out of Odessa. I'll join your line, boys. What's your twenty, Jake? Over."

Mississauga turns his attention to the front as they coast down a shallow hill and hit a long stretch of level where the freeway splits from two lanes to three. There are orange sodium lamps between the palms causing series of gliding, overlapping shadows to peel off the three eighteen-wheelers up ahead: a rolling wall of steel tearing a tunnel in the fog.

Yves blasts his horn. The trucks up ahead blast back. It's like whalesong.

"I see you back there, Frenchy. We're opening the lock."

Yves clicks his mic. "Ten-four." He hangs it up, eyes on the mirror, then spares the Indian a quick look. "Put your seatbelt on," he advises.

Three white, windowless vans zoom up alongside the truck. In concert they begin to veer over, leaning into the truck's lane and toward the breakdown strip. "Buggers!" hisses Yves, reaching for the gearshift.

The engine roars furiously, the cab quakes. He sways the rig over, just enough to put some fear into the white vans. Instinctively they draw back from the huge, spinning wheels.

More blasts of whalesong sound, stretched on the wind.

The rolling wall of steel ahead has slid apart. Yves' truck plunges into the gap, switching lanes one way and then the other, the swaying trailer groaning in metallic complaint. The other trucks flash by, trailer lights smeared into lines, their engines' voices Dopplered high and then low by speed.

And then, suddenly, the wall of rolling steel is intact behind them again. The lock has closed, a truck in each lane, riding perfectly abreast. Their engine brakes sputter as they crank down the speed in unison, widening the gap between Yves and Mississauga up ahead and the Org vans trapped behind.

"Yee-HOO!" croons Yves. He grabs the CB. "We're owing you large up here, good buddies. That was beautiful!"

He looks over at Mississauga, startled to see the youth's face pulled into a novel shape: he's grinning. His teeth shine gold in the sodium light.

Yves laughs. "What do ya think of that, kid? Not too shabby, huh?"

"Indeed, Mr. LeRoche. Not shabby at all." He pauses, then his face hardens. "Now what?"

"Now we take the parkway south, pick another route north to mix it up a bit. Keep them guessing." He starts moving over toward the entrance ramp for the southbound interchange. "I'm going to Jersey with an empty load. I can afford to be a little late. Jed and I go way back." Yves shifts gears as the truck slows for the cloverleaf, rounding the bend onto the comparatively busier Interstate 75. Tourist buses cram the outside lane.

The eastern horizon is turning rosy. The night is almost over.

Yves inserts the rig into the flow of traffic effortlessly, his gaze tracking out the window across the overpass to watch their rolling wall of steel and the captive vans approaching the interchange. Yves and Mississauga can't be spotted: up here his unmarked semi is just one of many.

Up ahead, Miami's glow is colouring the bellies of a bank of clouds. Yves notes the Org vans winding up the northbound cloverleaf, drawing further and further behind them. He chuckles, then pulls a pack of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket, knocking one free as he presses the pack to his mouth.

"Damn," he says again, lighting it up. He holds the pack out across the cab. "Help yourself, son," he says.

Mississauga looks at the pack. "The Org forbids pollution of the body."

Yves shrugs. "Sure. So does my wife, but I still give it to her now and again anyways. Ha, ha."

Mississauga reaches out and wedges a cigarette between the plastic thumb and forefinger of his artificial hand, then sticks it between his lips. He leans over so Yves can light it. The youth drags experimentally, coughs slightly, then blows twin streams of smoke from his hatchet-shaped nose. "It's warm," he notes.

"Yeah," agrees Yves. "So, where ya fixing to end up, kid? Where is it you're going to?"

The youth drags meditatively and then exhales another pair of fume streams through his nostrils. "Canada," he says.

Yves adjusts his cap, nodding. "You figure it'll be safe from these Orgasm guys up there, huh?"

"No," says Mississauga. "I'm going to find my father."


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