Out past Ozona things started getting bad. The shocks had been pretty soft to begin with, and the roads looked like they hadn't seen a repair crew in thirty years. Lord knew nobody would be out to fix things anytime soon. Not now. Charlie would just spend all the time it was light outside sitting in the flatbed with his little .22 trying to pick off jackrabbits for dinner. Even at night, Charlie didn't really respond much when somebody tried to talk to him, and Tom kept on tapping me on the shoulder and asking me if it was a good idea to let him keep the gun.
Well, what the fuck? Even if ol' Charles went off the rails, how much damage could he do with a little pea-shooter like that .22? Better not to antagonize him.
The spedometer had been pretty dicey even when we picked that junker of a truck up in the first place, but sometime past Ozona it had stopped working entirely, gummed up with that fine grainy dust that was getting everywhere now. It blew through the cab all the time now, and it got through that cracked casing on the spedometer in no time flat. Judging from the road signs that were still up, we weren't making more than a hundred miles a day, and I figured we were lucky to be getting that out of the old thing, what with the shit we were pouring into the fuel tanks.
I figure what we had in the jerry-cans had to be at least half water - and that if we were lucky. Shitty fuel or no, the smell of diesel still washed out of the engine and blew straight through the cab all the time. It soaked into our clothes and clung to us even when we made camp. We could taste that diesel on the MREs we ate for dinner, and even on the jackrabbit tacos we had when Charlie actually got something.
Some days I would drive for hours, feeling like we weren't moving much faster than we could walk, and Tom just sittin' in the passenger seat and fiddling with that old shortwave of Charlie's. The last few weeks, most of what had been coming in hadn't been in English. One station that Tom kept on picking up was something weird and fucking unearthly, just chanting all weird and nasal but dead calm. Like nothing I'd ever heard. Charlie heard it once when we'd stopped for me to take a piss, and got all excited. Said it was Mandarin. Just somebody reading off numbers, one after the other, in Mandarin. Fucking freaky if you ask me.
Finally, one night, Tom announced that the way he figured it, we'd make Fort Stockton after a few more hours driving, and if they didn't have any fuel we could trade for there, we were gonna have to abandon the truck. Even if that were so, it meant we'd be hitting some kind of civilization again, and to celebrate, we rolled up what was left of our weed into a scrawny little joint and had at it. I asked if we oughta pull over and let Charlie hit it too, but Tom said that the last thing he needed was anything making him any more nervous. It was a pretty sad little bone anyway, so I figured that was maybe just as well.
When we hit Fort Stockton, it was pretty easy right off to tell something was wrong. All the lights were out, of course, but even by the light of the pale hard crescent moon hangin' low in the sky, we could see that the town was empty. Looked like about half the buildings had been burnt out and the rest were plain empty. Windows out, everything portable stripped from the inside. We pulled the truck over on the main drag. I hopped out of the cab, and headed on back to the flatbed to say something to Charlie. The bed was empty. Charles had up and left.
Well, shit. Me and Tom talked it over, and we figured that one of us should go off with the jerry-cans and try to siphon off some fuel from wherever he could, and the other stay back by the truck and see if Charlie was gonna make his way back or what. I told Tom he could go off, seeing as I needed some rest anyway. I'd gotten pretty well used to the smell of the diesel and the wind was blowing hard and cold, so I figured I'd better just stay in the cab.
So I sat in that cab for I don't know how long. After a while, I got to playing with that radio again, and sure enough, I found that station with the Chinese again. Stoned, I was mesmerized by it. And so I sat, in burnt out old Fort Stockton, feet up on the dash, listening to somebody reading off single numbers in Mandarin.
When the shots fired off in the distance, they took me by surprise. At first, I thought somebody was letting off firecrackers, but then, in the pit of my stomach, I knew. But what the hell could I do? I sat back, lit up a cigarette, turned the volume on the radio all the way up, and waited.
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