I zip my fly and look up from the weeds I’ve been watering. The sun has risen over the hills in the distance, and there’s nothing but sand and scrub as far as the eye can see. I could be anywhere. There’s no way to tell what century I’m in—-or what planet I’m on. If I’ve traveled back in time, I’d never know the difference. And though I’d rather not think about it, there’s a chance I’m being held captive in a capsule somewhere, with a disk attached to the back of my skull and my brain imprisoned in a computer--generated world.
My eyes detect movement in a patch of dead brush. A scorpion emerges, and I watch it scuttle across the sand toward my shoe. The thing is a monster—-at least six inches long—-but I don’t even flinch. My startle reflex has been dialed down to zero. I’ve seen much worse in recent days. There’s one thing that worries me, though. It’s the color. I didn’t know real--world scorpions came in iridescent green. If I had a phone, I’d look it up. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever have a phone again.
I send the creature flying with a kick and head back toward the car. Kat’s there soaking up some early--morning sun. The sight of her pulls my thoughts back from the darkness. She’s wearing a Budweiser T-shirt and a pair of hot--pink jogging pants with the word diva printed across the butt. She picked up the ensemble at a Walmart in West Virginia, and somehow she makes it look amazing.
Kat’s reading a large sheet of paper that’s spread out on the hood in front of her. “Is that a newspaper?” I ask as I approach. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a print edition.
“Nicked it from the hotel before we left,” she tells me. “Says here there’s a pig--picking in Darwin next week. And Charlie Jones was arrested for stealing three chickens and a pregnant goat. I guess that’s what passes for front--page news here in southwest Texas.”
“Nothing about Milo? Or the Company?”
She looks up from the paper and snorts. “Are you kidding? Darwin, Texas, hasn’t made it out of the twentieth century,” she says.
A gust of wind sends Kat’s copper curls flying. I feel a twinge as she pulls her hair back and twists it into a bun. It suddenly occurs to me that the two of us may be alone. “Where’s Busara?” I ask.
Kat folds the newspaper and points to an identical stretch of desert on the other side of the road. There’s a tall, dark figure strolling through the brush. From a distance, she looks just like her Other-world avatar. I’m an idiot for never noticing the resemblance.
While Busara’s communing with nature, I grab Kat and draw her toward me. We’ve only had a few minutes to ourselves since we sped out of Brockenhurst two days ago. We were officially a couple by the time we hit I-95.
Being on the run would be so much more fun if we didn’t have a chaperone along for the ride. Instead I’ve had to make do with furtive kisses. When I slide my hand around the back of Kat’s neck, I feel the shaved patch at the base of her skull. Her hair is beginning to grow back in. She wraps her arms around me, and my head spins. I pull her closer and she loses her balance, sliding off the hood and landing on her injured leg.
“Awwww, man,” she groans.
“Shit, I’m so sorry, Kat.” I pick her up and gently put her back on the hood. She tries to smile but her face is ashen. She says her leg is getting better, but it still can’t bear her full weight. She was injured in Otherworld right before we made our escape from the facility, and her real--world body suffered the effects. I’ve been trying to convince her to see a doctor, but she won’t run the risk. I suppose it’s a moot point anyway. We don’t have the money to pay one.
“It’s okay.” I know the pain must be fading when Kat plants a kiss on my lips. Then she gazes over my shoulder at the wasteland I was just contemplating. “What were you thinking about out there?”
“You were watching me urinate?” I lift an eyebrow. “I had no idea you were into that sort of thing.”
Kat rolls her eyes. “I was just making sure you didn’t step on a snake.”
The green scorpion scuttles back through my thoughts. This time it’s my turn to wince. Since I returned from my last trip to Otherworld, I’ve been having trouble believing that everything I see here is real. This world and the other keep blending together. Maybe it’s just my way of avoiding reality. It’s still hard for me to accept the fact that, less than two days ago, I shot my girlfriend’s stepfather. And it wasn’t in a video game.
“Do you think Wayne is dead?” I ask Kat. It’s the first time either of us have uttered her stepfather’s name since we left New Jersey. As I wait for Kat’s answer, I realize I honestly don’t know what I want it to be.
“No,” Kat replies with conviction.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because we’re not that lucky.” I was hoping for more of a medical opinion, but Kat’s definitely got a point there. Our luck hasn’t exactly been stellar.
We shouldn’t be hanging out on the side of a road. It’s time to get going again. The paranoia hits us both, and we look for Busara. She’s headed back in our direction, as if the same alarm just went off in her head.
“How many miles until we get to New Mexico?” Kat asks.
“Hard to tell,” I say. “Three or four hundred, maybe? This is the first time I’ve ever used a fold--up, paper map. They don’t make it easy to judge distances.”
“And you’re absolutely sure we’ll find Elvis when we get there?”
I laugh—-and remind myself that Kat never had the pleasure of meeting my former boarding school roommate. “Oh, that part’s going to be easy,” I tell her. “I doubt we’ll be able to miss him.”