Their shared stress-induced obliviousness persisted until they had backed out of the short driveway at the top of the hill and started forward again on their way back toward town. Very quickly, the large black grill of the truck in the rearview mirror and the throaty roar of its internal combustion engine made it impossible for Chip and Lurlene to miss. Chip did the opposite of blushing, his cheeks turning pure white. Lurlene didn’t seem frightened, but the sparks seeming to fly from here eyes sure made her look more angry than Chip ever wanted to make someone. Her anger was a little bit soothing because it was like taking on the world with a lion on your side, but it was also terrifying because he was now riding in the car with a lion.
Lurlene even growled a little bit as she demanded that Chip “punch it!”, but she must have forgotten that they weren’t behind the wheel of her Corvette, which was a vehicle that was a movie match made in heaven for this chase sequence. But instead, they were riding in his completely sensible and useless in a car chase two-person electric runabout. At the cost-weight ratio of the little energy saving coupe, they were lucky that they still had doors.
Although it looked very much like a rhino chasing a mouse during an Olympic speed walking event, Buck restrained himself from ramming the mouse completely off the road, or just stepping on the mouse and smashing it flat as the big truck seemed eminently capable of doing. Like many high speed car chases that end up on television and social media sites, this was actually a quite low speed chase as Chip’s car was capable of only a delicate amount above the posted speed limit on the gravel road heading back into town.
If anything, the chase got even sillier as they got back into town. Buck ran most of the stop signs to keep close behind Chip and Lurlene, but he signalled turns, braked when they did to maintain his distance, and continued to avoid smashing them like a bug. Chip was so petrified by this experience that he really didn’t have any thoughts on where to go or how to escape from his predicament. Unlike any prey animal, Chip didn’t even know how to save his own skin in this situation.
He turned to Lurlene and gasped out the obvious existential question “What are we going to do?” Lurlene yelled at him to “Just keep driving,” which seemed to be good enough advice because just driving had kept them alive this long. “Maybe if we can’t outrun him, we can outlast him.” Lurlene suggested. “How far can this windup toy go before it needs to be recharged?”
“I don’t know. A hundred miles I think the reviews said on Amazon?”
“You bought a car on Amazon?” cried Lurlene.
“Wait, what, sure, yeah, of course I did. Don’t you go there first to find out the best price before you check other stores? Nobody could beat their price on this trim level.”
Lurlene shook her head, flipping tiny droplets of her lion’s anger off onto the blanket of insecurity that hung over Chip. “I’m sure he’s got more fuel in his truck than that. Buck may be a total pinhead, but he also fills up every time he gets down to half a tank.”
Chip tried out a possible suggestion, “What if you jump out at the next stop sign and run for it?” Lurlene didn’t think that was a good idea at all.
“Shouldn’t you be the one doing the running. Buck’s got the hots for me, I might be able to talk my way out of this. But if he catches you he’ll take you apart like one of those fetal pigs that we had to dissect back in eleventh grade. Chip Sparks, I hated that unit. Don’t make me relive it tonight. Maybe you should be the one escaping on foot.”
Chip uh-huhed vigorously at the thought of avoiding dissection completely for the evening, but he also huh-uhed the idea of abandoning Lurlene to face Buck Lemaire by herself, no matter how pretty that self might be.
Chip tried again to make some sense of it. “We can’t keep going forever, so we need to stop some place. We need it to be a place where we can have some advantage over Buck.” Like most rational analysis, Chip was completely correct and also completely useless because he didn’t know where to find an advantage over Buck. His only chance of one-upping Buck Lemaire was if he ran them down and then agreed to play math league against Chip to see if he should release them unharmed. Chip didn’t like the chances of that happening, so he thought he’d keep going.
Lurlene ah-hahed. “I know a place where we can lose him. Somewhere that a big truck like that will be a hindrance rather than a help. Turn left up there!” Chip doubted somewhat that his little electric car would be better at anything than Buck’s big truck, but he didn’t have a better suggestion, so he carefully turned on his blinker and made the left that Lurlene suggested.
Lurlene’s further directions took them out the east side of town past the more grotesque strip mall developments of two decades earlier. The ongoing tension between the quaint downtown business district and the globally relevant big-box brands had never resolved itself in Fredrickton and both poles seemed to be the worse for it, with vacant storefronts on the main street downtown (not called Main Street of course) and vacant hangar-sized retail temples on the state highway leading out of town. Lurlene sent Chip straight past the outlets, so apparently her plan which she hadn’t fully revealed was not to lose him by driving through the aisles of the Wal-Mart.
Instead, she had Chip follow the signs for a state wilderness area that surrounded one of the many creeks in the area. It was one of the closest wilderness parks to the town, but of course that didn’t mean very much to people who fretted more about hitting deer on the way to work than hitting traffic. If Fredrickton were instantly replaced by Portland, then this little state park would turn into a hipster-drenched weekend shit show of Gore-tex and selfie sticks, but as it was, there probably wouldn’t be more than one car in the grassy old parking lot.
That worried Chip enough for him to ask Lurlene what she had in mind, “It seems like you’re taking us right off the beaten path onto the murdering path Lurlene. Do we need to make it so easy on him to hide the bodies?”
She leaked a hint of her own stress when she told Chip “Shut up and do what I tell you.”
He did shut up and he tried to follow even the directions that he imagined she might be thinking at each moment. At this moment, that meant keeping the little car on the gravel road that led to the parking lot. Chip had never mastered the fine art of driving on gravel roads. He always felt that road surfaces should be primarily immobile like asphalt or concrete, rather than shifting under his tires. He could see the smooth ruts that had been worn through the gravel to the solid dirt below, but they never seemed to line up with the side of the road that he wanted to drive on. Since he wasn’t capable of flaunting rules and safety enough to just drive in the middle of the road where the smooth parts were, he had to wade through the deeper gravel on his side of the road. Buck’s truck of course had no problem chewing the poor road into compliant pieces, so Chip began to doubt again the wisdom of Lurlene’s plan, whatever it was, but he bit his tongue rather than ask more questions.
“Okay, when you take the turn into the parking lot, don’t turn off into a parking spot. Keep going straight. When you come to the chain across the road, just keep going that way.”
“Are you crazy?” Chip couldn’t keep himself from asking another question, but this one didn’t offer a very high information content for the current situation, so Lurlene just rolled her eyes like only an ex-cheerleader can and pointed ahead at the right-hand turn that was coming up to head into the parking lot. Chip carefully slowed and signaled again, maintaining his slow speed through the turn to try and get the best look possible at the layout. It was a typical park parking lot, which might have been graveled at one point, but the weedy grass had grown up well above the tops of any rocks that underlay it. The park department just mowed the lot every once in a while and the small number of people who came out here just parked on what would have passed for a fine lawn in some of the places Chip had lived.
Along one side of the parking lot was an access road that the park department probably used every once in a while to be able to drive their lawn mower past the low fence that kept the cars safely in while the owners got out. The access road was closed off to everyone else by a long metal chain that stretched across the road and would be padlocked on one end so that authorized personnel could unlock it to drive through. Now, Lurlene thought that Chip and his tiny plastic skateboard on steroids should ignore the countermeasures and just drive right on through.
Such was Chip’s innate acquiescence that he didn’t even raise a further concern, he just did as he was told and drove slowly into the slack chain. The chain caught under the little bumper and gave the beginnings of a convincing tug on their forward motion, but very quickly, the retardation slackened and the tiny car continued out of the parking lot that it had just entered and on down a rutted and overgrown track through a pleasant woodland with tall trees dangling their remaining brown leaves over the roadway.
“How did you know that would happen?” Chip asked breathlessly.
“Oh, I noticed once that they didn’t even bother locking the padlocks on those gates. Probably some high school kid lost the key one summer and the old guys in the park department are too cheap to buy a new lock, so they just keep the original one gently tucked between the post and the chain.”
“Wow. That would have been a great story to hear 4 minutes ago. But, how does this help us. Now we’re off the road and onto the kind of terrain that a four-wheel drive pickup truck is made for. What does this car have that can help us out here?”
Lurlene only replied enigmatically, “A slim figure. Just keep going as far back as you can.” The access road ran along on the flat bottom ground next to the little creek. The creek swung lazily back and forth across the bottom of its valley where it presumably had been re-choosing its route periodically for a million or more years. The road on the other hand had chosen one straight route and stuck with it, which meant that at times, the river came perilously close to Chip’s side of the car and he tried to balance his fear of getting gorilla punched by the man in the truck behind them with his fear of flying off into the water like some yankee bad guy from the Dukes of Hazzard.
The further back they drove in the park, the less and less regular the road maintenance became. The potholes were bigger and the little car kept scraping the low parts of the drivetrain as it went down or back up from some car-sized declivity full of old rain water. In addition to the condition of the road, the trees of the forest began to grow closer and closer to the road. At first, it was clear that the road had been kept clear for some time, but then neglected so that seedling trees had begun to encroach on the right and left side of the road. Chip worried about the unfortunate tree that had taken root in the middle of a gravel road, but apparently that level of germination and determination was quite rare because the little car kept slipping between the trees on both sides and it went deeper into the forest.
However, Buck’s truck had begun to emit surprising cracking and crunching noises as it barreled along behind them at a threateningly small but thankfully consistent following distance. The little seedling trees that had been foolish enough to sprout closest to the road were being rammed by the reinforced bumpers on Buck’s truck and so far none of the little trees had survived, while the thick metal bumpers didn’t seem damaged at all.
“I think I see where you’re going with this Lurlene, but these trees don’t seem to be slowing him down at all!” Chip avoided the panicked and sarcastic question, but since his remark wasn’t interrogatory, Lurlene must have figured that it didn’t warrant a response because she kept peering intently out the window as if looking for landmarks. She whispered her next instruction “just up here where the road looks like it ends, just keep going straight.”
That was worse advice than being told to drive through a metal chain, but after this much time obeying Lurlene, Chip couldn’t back out or back up, so he kept on going, trying to see the exact point where the road ended and he would keep going. As they came around a long right hand turn, Chip saw clearly what Lurlene must have been remembering. The park maintenance track didn’t stop anywhere, instead it just ended. Two tall trees that looked absolutely immense to Chip’s human-scale mind stood astride the road and the beaten down look of the grass in front of those trees told the story of park workers turning at this point.
But Lurlene didn’t intend for Chip to turn around any time soon. She talked louder with increasing excitement, “There it is, there it is. Hit the hole!” Chip didn’t see anything that looked like a hole, but he did have a vague recollection that this is something that Lurlene had said a great deal when Buck Lemaire was a star running back for their high school football team. Chip only had time for a quick glance at Lurlene to see if she was serious before he had to turn back to the front and judge his own width and position relative to those two trees. And like driving through the posts that protect the automated teller machine from automobile-equipped thiefs, Chip threaded the little electric car into the gap between the two trees. If he had been more accurate, he might have kept both of his rear-view mirrors, but his approach had been lopsided and he whacked off the mirror assembly on Chip’s door.
But, as close as it was for Chip to make the run between the two trees, it was totally impossible that Buck’s truck could either fit between them or bash them down like he had been doing so far. Chip caught a brief glimpse of the front side of frantic fishtailing as Buck slammed on his brakes to avoid getting stuck like Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. The glimpse was brief because Chip had to devote the greatest part of his attention to not running into the rest of the trees that encroached on the even more sketchy track through the woods that he was apparently on now and wanted to stay on. Without the fiercesome truck coming up behind them, he did let his speed slacken so he could have some time to react after he saw the trees coming.
Chip laughed a bit maniacally at their apparent escape and he snuck glances over at Lurlene to see if she was laughing too. She wasn’t though and that concerned Chip greatly. “Uh, where does this road go, Lurlene?”
“I think this is an old road that goes up out of the river valley back up to the highlands where all the corn fields are. I once had a 1906 topographical map of this area and it had all the roads from that time marked on it and they were different than they are now. There was probably some farmstead up on the bluff out here and it was easiest to make a cart track along the river and then up the bluff. So here we are on their cart track more than a century later. Pretty cool, huh?” she asked with strained casualness.
“Go back to the beginning where you said you think this is an old road. You think? You mean you’ve never been here before?”
“Well, no, I haven’t been this far, but I’ve spent lots of time bumming around that park drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and we always figured that the between those two trees was where we would find one of the roads from that old map. And we did find it, didn’t we? I mean, here we are, right?”
Chip had gotten distracted by Lurlene’s admission of practical ignorance about the eventual destination of this road, but as he focused back on the forest outside, he was surprised to find out that it only looked like a road if he already believed that he was on a road to somewhere. Now that he doubted that the road went anywhere—if in fact it was a road—he found that he could just as easily believe that we was driving an electric car through an untracked forest. When he started to believe in that fashion, he found it much harder to see his way through the trunks of the trees in an obvious path forward.
His speed began to slacken more as he grew more indecisive about which side to pass around the tree trunks to stay on the “road”. The road grew steeper and he drove slower with both indecision and the effort of the little electric wheel motors to push two adults and a raft of batteries up the side of a cliff, which was how it was starting to feel.
Just as a hint of openness began to appear among the farthest visible trees and the lightening of the afternoon light falling down through the branches onto the car started to suggest that there was a destination to this manic trip, just as that was happening, they came to the final, steepest section of road. The car slowed dramatically going into the steep section and Lurlene turned to Chip to ask “Why are you slowing down? We’re almost there!” even though she was only pretending to know where there was located.
“I’m not trying to slow down!” and Chip jammed his right foot down as far as he could to demonstrate that his foot was already on the floor. The torque of the wheels continued to droop, no matter how hard Chip pushed on the floorboard. The effort of moving all that mass up such a steep incline just felt intolerable to the little car and it refused to go further. Their forward movement stopped and Chip even had to step on the brake to keep them from rolling backward.
Both Lurlene and Chip gaped open-mouthed at the cessation of movement, after their controlled yet headlong flight, it was a shock to be halted completely near the top of a rise with the forest falling off to their left down into the river valley. Chip scanned the gauges on the dashboard and winced, “We’re out of juice.”
“Juice, what juice?” Lurlene wondered about the apparent non sequitir.
“Juice, watts, power, electricity. We’ve got no more juice in the battery pack. When these lithium batteries run out of power, the voltage level just falls off a cliff, pardon the expression. When that happens, there’s less and less energy to make the car go forward and eventually, it doesn’t go forward at all.” Chip frowned to understand what had happened to trap them both.
Lurlene insisted, “You said this car had a 100 mile range. We haven’t gone close to 100 miles!”
“It has a 100 mile range when fully charged. You didn’t ask me how charged up we were. I haven’t been driving very much, not more than a few miles back and forth in town, so I haven’t even needed to charge up every day like I used to back in the city. The self-discharge on this generation of batteries is really, really low so if you have juice when you go to bed, it’ll still be there in the morning. I must have lost track of just how low it had gotten.”
Lurlene could hardly believe it, “Out of gas? We ran out of gas? We got stuck in the woods because we ran out of gas!?” Chip started to correct her terminology since the car didn’t use any gas at all, but he thought better of it when he noticed the look of frustration on her face.
But that was nothing like the look that she had when she noticed the large black truck as it pulled up behind them.