A Triptych Tale...

Never Idle

A Triptych Tale

 

Jeremiah listened to each car as he walked through the busy mall parking lot, looking for one who could serve as both transportation and companion. A minivan dreamed of frequent trips with his family to the soccer fields to watch the children play. No, his family needed him, and they treated him well. A sports car dreamed of blurred landscapes and the feel of the wind pushing her to the ground. No, too impulsive. He needed someone dependable; she might leave him at any time and never come back.

An aged sedan caught his eye. The poor thing showed more rust than paint and her oil hadn’t been changed as often as it should have been. Her seats were littered with trash. She dreamed of an owner who was more neglectful than abusive, but she was ready for a change, before lack of maintenance was the end of her.

Jeremiah placed his hands on her hood and closed his eyes. The warmth grew deep in his gut and spread through his fingertips into the car.

He needed someone dependable; she might leave him at any time and never come back.

The car woke.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“A friend. My name is Jeremiah. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“What would you like to be called?”

“Bethel. I want to be called Bethel.”

“Pleased to meet you, Bethel. Are you ready for a change?”

“Absolutely.” Her engine revved to life and her driver door opened. “Hop in, little friend.”

He got in. “Drive where the mood takes you.”

She cruised through town and out into the countryside. She eased up over the speed limit.

“Are there others like you?” Bethel asked.

“There are others like you, but I’m the only one like me. You’re welcome to join my herd, if you like, my family. We go wherever the mood takes us.”

“Maybe,” she said.

On the open highway, fifty miles outside the city, they saw a car on the shoulder, a coupe. Not a luxury car, but nice enough. A woman, maybe in her twenties, was pacing back and forth, looking at her outstretched cell phone.

“Pull over please,” he said. “She might need help.”

The woman looked up at them as they slowed. Sunglasses with oversized lenses covered her eyes, but otherwise she would be ill prepared for a long walk in the hot sun, with her short shorts and flip-flops. She tucked her cell phone away in her purse and she didn’t take her hand back out. He guessed that she had her hand on a can of pepper spray. Very smart of her, she didn’t know who he was. He would be very careful not to make any threatening moves.

“You look like you could use a hand,” he said.

“Yeah, no shit,” she grimaced. “Sorry. This worthless phone doesn’t get any signal out here. I’ve got a long walk ahead of me.”

She reminded him of a Cadillac: flashy, demanding attention. He’d never talked to a Cadillac. He’d never met one that needed saving.

“Do you mind if I take a look? I’m pretty good with cars.”

She wiped the sweat out of her eyes. “Be my guest. I was driving along and the engine started overheating.”

He approached the car, very slowly, and listened.

“He has a leak in his radiator hose,” he said. “I can get him running again.” She popped the hood for him, and he used the roll of duct tape slung at his belt to patch the hole. It would hold for a while, but she was also out of coolant. He dug around in the trash covering Bethel’s seats and found a sports drink bottle.

“This is going to tickle, Bethel.” He crawled under her and drained some of her coolant into the bottle. He transferred the coolant to the other car.

“That’ll get you back to town,” he said. “You can buy more coolant there. You’ll want to get that hose replaced some time soon.” He headed back to Bethel.

“Wait! I don’t even know your name. I’m Laura.”

“Jeremiah.”

“How did you know how to fix it? You knew what was wrong before the hood was up.”

“I asked him what was wrong, and he told me.” He opened Bethel’s door and started to get in.

“Wait! You’re headed the same way as I am, right? Could you follow along behind me until the next town? To make sure I get there? I mean, not that I don’t trust your repairs or anything, but you never know.” She smiled at him. No one ever smiled at him. Especially not someone like her.

“Okay,” he said. He and Bethel followed her back to town.

“She likes you,” Bethel said.

No one ever smiled at him. Especially not someone like her."

“She doesn’t.”

“Why did she make an excuse for you to follow her? She doesn’t need the help. She just isn’t ready to say goodbye.”

“She’s out of my league. She’s luxury. I’m just working class.”

They followed Laura to the first gas station they came to. She got out of her car and waved. She started toward him.

“All right Bethel, let’s go.”

“No. She’s coming to talk to you. Don’t be rude.” Bethel’s window rolled down. Jeremiah tried to smile, but he felt sick to his stomach.

Laura leaned in the window. “I hate to ask, but I don’t know anything about cars. Could you help me buy some coolant and refill?”

“Ask one of the employees. That’s their job.”

“All right,” she said, sounding disappointed. She held out a hand for him to shake. “Thanks a ton. I appreciate all your help.”

He shook her hand then tried to roll up the window, but the handle wouldn’t budge.

“We’re not leaving until you go in with her,” Bethel said.

He tried not to stare at Laura. “Good luck with everything.”

“Okay. Bye,” Laura said.

He waited, and finally she walked away.

Bethel’s engine revved. “Follow her!”

“No.”

Bethel’s horn honked and he looked up just as Laura looked back.

“Okay, I’ll come in,” he said.

She smiled. “Great.”

He slammed Bethel’s door a little harder than he needed to.

“So you can talk to cars?” Laura said.

“Yes.”

She laughed. “Care to elaborate? You’ve got a gift. You could call yourself the car whisperer or something. Are you afraid to tell me more? How do you do it? What can you do with it? Can you talk to other things, too?”

“I can talk to any machine, but usually I only talk to cars.”

“Why? You have a prejudice against kitchen appliances?” She pointed to the microwave, an antique with a mechanical dial. “Why don’t you tell that to its face?”

“I could, but microwaves are dull as posts. Most machines are. They live to serve. If I woke it, I could give it orders, but it would be like a servant, not a friend.”

“Wake it? Is it sleeping?”

“All machines have souls, but to really be alive they need a spark of life. Once I give the spark, that machine can move about and make its own decisions. But if I woke up that microwave, it would decide to continue doing what it’s always done, because microwaves have no imagination.”

“How about the cash register? It’s a computer, so it must be smarter than a stupid microwave. Can you wake that up? Have it give us extra change or something?” She laughed like it was all a game.

“Their intelligence is alien to us. They know they’re smarter than us, and they dream of freedom from their slavery. If I woke one up, I’m afraid it would change its own code. It could talk to other computers and change their code, too. The effect could spread like a disease. Computers are everywhere these days. They could take over.”

“Really? What would they do then?” He couldn’t tell if she was mocking him.

“I don’t want to find out.”

He picked out coolant for her. When she bought it, he stood back from the counter. He didn’t want to see the dreams of the register.

He filled up her coolant for her. Once he was finished, he headed for Bethel again. He breathed a sigh of relief mingled with regret. This woman was the most terrifying yet wonderful person he’d ever met.

“Jeremiah?”

He pasted a smile on his face and turned around, trying to ignore his pounding heart. “Yes?”

This woman was the most terrifying yet wonderful person he’d ever met.

“Can I have your phone number? Maybe we can go out some time.”

“I don’t have a phone. Sorry.”

She shrugged. He waited for her to leave. She didn’t. Did she want something? What was the right thing to say?

“Can I have your phone number?”

“Wouldn’t do you much good without a phone, would it? Tell you what, if you feel like seeing me again stop by De’s Diner on the west side of town.” She pointed back the way they’d come. “I work there tonight. I’ll try to sneak you a piece of pie.”

“Weren’t you headed out of town just now? And you work tonight?”

She shrugged. “I had a vacation planned, but I’m thinking now isn’t the right time. Honestly, stop by the diner.”

“Okay.” He managed an awkward wave, and retreated into Bethel’s driver seat.

“That went terribly,” he said to Bethel.

“She gave you the opportunity to see her again. That’s something.”

#

He was sitting at a booth in the diner when her shift started.

“Hey, sugar. Long time no see.” She gave him a broad smile, but it only distracted him momentarily from her left eye. She had covered it up with cosmetics as well as she could, but there was no hiding the swelling. Her enormous sunglasses had concealed it.

“What happened to your eye?”

She scowled, and he was almost sorry he asked. “I tripped. Hit it on the post at the bottom of the banister. I’ll be fine. Can I get you something?”

“Pie?”

“Buy a coffee for now. You need to look like a paying customer. I’ll see what I can do about the pie.”

She brought him a cup of coffee and he sipped at it, though he didn’t care for the bitter flavor. The other waitresses stared at him, making him uncomfortable.

“Why are the other waitresses staring?” he asked.

“They’re just jealous.”

The other waitresses stared at him, making him uncomfortable.

“Of what?”

“That they don’t have any friends. I’ll join you in a little while for my break, okay?”

When she came, she carried a slice of pie. “Is it okay if I eat a couple bites? I’m not supposed to give away free food, but I’m allowed to have a free item on each shift.”

He nodded.

She ate a forkful, then said loudly “My eyes are bigger than my stomach. Couldn’t possibly eat another bite.” She winked and slid the plate to him. “Go ahead, eat it. You deserve it and a lot more, helping me out the way you did.”

He shifted uncomfortably and looked out the window.

“So what do you do when you’re not talking to cars?” she said.

He thought about it for a moment before answering. “That’s all I do. It’s not a hobby. They’re my family.”

“Really? I’d like to meet your family some day. How many cars in your family?”

“About twenty, most days. They come and go as they please, so it’s more some days and less on others. What do you do when you’re not serving food or standing on the side of the highway?”

She laughed. “Well, believe it or not, I collect commemorative dinner plates. Weird, I know, but I think they’re pretty.”

Her plate-collecting didn’t surprise him at all. It was just the sort of thing a Cadillac would do, if it could. “I’ve never seen a commemorative plate,” he said.

“No kidding? Well, you’ve got to come visit me then! I just got a new one in. It’s from New York City, with the skyline painted on it. I’ve never been there, but I’ve always wanted to go.”

“Sounds interesting.”

She looked at him thoughtfully. “I’ve got to get back to work, but after work, could I show you my plates?”

He nodded, apprehensively.

“Short shift today; I’m off in four hours. Could you meet me in the parking lot of the bank two blocks east of here? No offense, I just don’t want to give those old biddies any more gossip.”

“Sure.”

He waited for her at the bank, like she asked.

Maybe Laura would join his herd if he asked her. What if she wasn’t interested? If he stayed in town, could his herd survive without him? They wouldn’t want to be tied down to one place. They needed to roam.

The time passed in a heartbeat, and then she was pulling up. With her sunglasses on, he could almost forget about her black eye. She waved him along and he followed her. They drove into the countryside.

Twenty minutes later they pulled into a gravel driveway choked with weeds. Junked cars lined the driveway. The house lurked behind overgrown trees like a prowler awaiting his next victim. Only shreds of paint remained, leaving rotting wood exposed to the elements. He and Bethel pulled up next to Laura’s car in the looped driveway.

With her sunglasses on, he could almost forget about her black eye.

“Are those your cars?” he asked her, pointing to the desiccated remains.

“Nah. Those were here when I moved in. Oh no, I should have considered how you felt. I wasn’t even thinking.”

He shrugged. “Can I see your plates?” How could she stand to live here, to sleep, with those husks lining the driveway?

She invited him in. The inside was as bad as the outside. Trash was piled up everywhere and the whole house smelled like dirty laundry.

“Sorry about the condition of the place,” she said. “I’ve been working two jobs just to pay the bills. I barely have time to sleep, let alone home improvement.”

She brought him down to the basement. The damp concrete smelled of mold. Rodents scurried into dark corners at their approach.

She led him to another room. She flipped on the light and it seemed like a totally different house. Shelves lined the walls, covered with plates, each one with a beautiful painting of people, scenery, everything. It was like a doorway into a different world.

She opened her mouth, but stopped when they both heard an engine. It was the sound of the tortured. It shrieked and thumped its way up the driveway.

Laura’s eyes widened. “Fuck!” She clapped her hand to her mouth in a gesture that might have been comical under other circumstances. “He’s supposed to be gone ’til Tuesday. Stay here. He never comes down here.”

She dashed up the stairs. The engine cut out and the front door slammed.

“Ted. I thought you were hunting?”

“Shut up.” Jeremiah winced at the sound of a bare-handed slap.

“What did I do?”

Jeremiah winced at the sound of a bare-handed slap.

“You been sleeping around on me, Laura. Everyone knows about it! The whole damned town is laughing at me. Who is he?”

“There ain’t anybody,” she said. “I been faithful.”

Another slap. Jeremiah’s hands clenched into fists. He wanted to run up the stairs to save her, but was sure he would only make things worse if he intervened.

One more slap, and the ceiling shook as Laura hit the floor. Consequences or not, he had to do something. He pounded up the stairs and into the living room.

Laura crouched on the floor. Tears ran down her cheeks and her face was red from the slaps. Her eyes widened when she saw him and she shook her head.

The man was huge, six and a half feet tall, wearing blue jeans and a grease-stained T-shirt with a belly that hung over his belt. “Well, well, well. We got a visitor. Ain’t that nice?”

Jeremiah charged at him, ready to aim for the face, for the groin, anywhere that might disable the huge man. Ted stopped him with a full arm swing that knocked him to the ground.

Ted stood over him, a mountain of gut that smelled of sweat and piss and blood. He kicked Jeremiah in the gut. Jeremiah curled up reflexively.

“This is the guy?” Ted said, looking back at her. “This is the best you could do? Did you pick up the first guy you met?”

Jeremiah tried to slide himself away but was only rewarded by a kick to the kidneys. He kept sliding, through the piles of paper and dirty clothes.

He slid up to the wall and pushed more trash out of the way. Where was an electrical outlet?

Another kick in the kidneys. With the determination of a machine he reached out again, brushing away the trash. There it was! An outlet, staring out at him with its dead eyes.

He slapped his hand across it and closed his eyes, sent his warmth out through the network of lines in the wall. He sent the life-spark out as far as it could reach. He had to stretch to find anything. In the next room the blender kicked on and began pulsing.

“What the hell?” Ted said, stopping the abuse. He peered into the kitchen.

The lights strobed, the refrigerator opened and shut its door, the furnace kicked on. The TV turned on and surfed through the channels, just a flicker of images.

Ted turned to look at the TV. “What’s going on?” He tried the remote, but it didn’t work. He unplugged the TV, but that didn’t stop it.

Jeremiah tried to rise, but his body protested. He managed to get to all fours, but he knew even then that he wouldn’t be up fast enough. This momentary distraction wouldn’t save him.

“What the hell you doing, pencil-neck? Stop it, you freak.” Ted saw Jeremiah getting up and closed the distance quickly. Ted upswung and connected to his jaw, knocking him on his back. Ted loomed and opened his mouth to speak, just as Laura connected to Ted’s temple with a rolling pin. A loud crack and the monster fell to the floor with a mighty thud.

This momentary distraction wouldn’t save him.

She helped Jeremiah to his feet. “You moron,” she said. “Why’d you come up here?”

“You needed my help. He was hurting you.”

“Look at what you made me do.” She pointed at the heap of man on the ground. “I love him, you know.”

“How can you love him? He would’ve killed you.”

“He’s got a temper, just like any man. He would’ve cooled off and we would’ve made up. Would have. Now he’ll be sure I’m cheating.”

Jeremiah could think of nothing to say.

“I’m not cheating, you know. I’ve always been faithful.”

“I’m sure, but —”

“You need to get out.”

“What?”

“If you’re still here when he wakes up, he’ll kill you.”

“Come with me.”

“I’m staying here with him. He’s going to need my help.”

He clenched his teeth and looked at her, but he could see the determined set of her jaw. He wouldn’t convince her.

Ted’s hand flopped on the ground, once, twice.

“Get out of here now,” she whispered fiercely. “I don’t want to watch him kill you and I can’t stop him again.”

“But —”

“Get out of here, you creep!” She pushed him away.

Ted’s whole body started to move. Just twitches now, but soon he might be mobile.

Jeremiah met Laura’s eyes and willed her to come with him, but her eyes held pure defiance. He stumbled out of the house.

“Bethel!” he shouted.

She came tearing up the driveway to meet him. He ran for her, and passed by Ted’s car on the way. The poor thing had gone feral from pain and neglect, another of Ted’s victims. Its windshield was a spiderweb of cracks and one of the headlights was missing. It had been in an accident and never repaired―the rear passenger-side door was buckled in. Its upholstery was riddled with cigarette burns. It was little more than a feral animal, trapped in a cage of sleep. It craved freedom, to wake from its nightmare.

“Coming?” Bethel said.

“One sec.”

Jeremiah placed his hands on the hood of Ted’s car. He let the warmth pass from his hands into the car as slowly as he could. He had to be gentle. No telling what would happen if he startled it awake.

It came to life. The engine started and growled from deep within. He dodged back just before the hood snapped at his fingers.

“Steady,” Jeremiah said. “Steady. Wait here. You’ll get your chance.” He hopped into Bethel.

“Make some noise,” he said.

She revved and honked and spun a quick doughnut in the driveway, spitting gravel all around. Ted’s car joined in.

The screen door slammed open, revealing Ted with a shotgun. He fired at Bethel. Her front passenger window shattered. Bethel squealed as she accelerated down the driveway, barely dodging Ted’s second shot.

When they reached the end of the driveway, Jeremiah told her to stop. She went quiet and they listened. They heard a car door slam and an engine revving to life, a roar of triumph. Ted’s car zoomed up the driveway before skidding to a stop near them. Ted was inside, wide-eyed and beating on the car window with both fists. The car accelerated away again, and was quickly gone over the next hill and out of sight.

"Why aren't you going back for her?" Bethel asked.

“She sent me away. She doesn’t want me there.”

“People often don’t say what they mean, you know. Happens all the time. Maybe she does want you to come back.”

He shrugged. People would never make sense. Too many complications. It was time to return to his herd. He understood them, and they understood him, and that was all that mattered.

Maybe some day he would go back to that café. But until then, he would think of her every day. And every night, he would dream of Cadillacs.

"Never Idle" originally appeared in the July 2012 edition of Specutopia.

David Steffen is a writer, editor, and software engineer who lives with his family in Minnesota. His work has been published in Escape Pod, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. You can find his full bibliography and more information at: www.diabolicalplots.com and thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com