Buck Lemaire jumped casually down from the cab of the pickup as Chip gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and Lurlene fumed aggressively. Buck walked right up to the driver’s side window and rapped on it with one knuckle. Chip couldn’t roll down the window because the battery was dead, so he had to open the door and gesture at Buck to step back because he was about to swing the little door open into Buck’s crotch. Buck stepped back and Chip opened the door and started to unfold himself from the small front seat.
“Looks like you folks could use some help,” Buck Lemaire drawled lazily.
Chip had been bracing himself for some kind of physical altercation, hoping that the few months of karate he had managed to endure after he graduated college would stand him in good stead. So Buck’s friendly manner took Chip completely off guard and disarmed him, if he could ever have been considered armed in the first place.
“Uh, yeah, I guess. It seems we’re uh”—Chip chose the easiest expression—”uh, out of gas.”
“Well, I can help you with that, why don’t you just jump in the truck and we’ll go get you some gas.”
That kind offer was too much for Chip to just swallow, so he had to ask, “Weren’t you just trying to catch us?”
“‘Course I was,” Buck admitted without any trace of remorse. “I was looking for you to help me out with my computer. You said you were some kind of IT wizard when you dropped in on me uninvited.”
Chip couldn’t comprehend what he was hearing, so he had to gulp and ask more stupid questions of his most ancient social enemy. “You, uh, you wanted some help with you computer? That’s why you followed us all the way across town?” Chip asked guiltily.
“Sure, and it’s a good thing I did. You two are miles from anything out here. I mean, maybe you could flag down a combine or a farmer on his big tractor putting down ammonia for next year’s crop, but otherwise you were going to be walking back to Fredrickton.”
From the way he was talking, Chip almost expected Buck to drape his arm over Chip’s shoulders, but instead Buck draped a goofy grin on his face and leaned down to see Lurlene in the passenger seat. “Hey good lookin’. I didn’t get to say goodbye to you last time we saw each other. Wanna go back to the office so I can have another chance?”
Lurlene quickly controlled the sequence of angry and frustrated looks that spun over her lovely features until she just looked plain lovely and she turned to smile back at Buck. She replied coyly to his invitation with a bit more than her usual country drawl, “Let’s figure out how to get us out of here first, okay? Then, who knows?” Thankfully for Chip she didn’t wink at Buck when she said it.
Buck slapped his palms on the flimsy plastic door and chuckled, “Sure thing sweetheart. I can get you two out of here, no problem.” He good-naturedly stood and began leading the way back down the two tracks that Chip had been pretending amounted to a road. Chip and Lurlene had no choice but to follow, but she flashed Chip a scowl as he waited with what he hoped was politeness for her to go first. Chip couldn’t figure out if it was his attempt at politeness that earned him the scowl or if Lurlene was in a scowly mood right now and Chip was a convenient depository for her emotional expression. Chip shook his head gently and followed Lurlene back to Buck’s big truck.
Thankfully for Chip who didn’t think his confused senses could handle sitting cheek by jowl with Lurlene, Buck’s big black work truck had a second row of seats behind the wide bench seat that Buck and Lurlene occupied. Her scowl now re-composed into a friendly dullness, Lurlene sat stiffly in the passenger seat while Chip climbed up onto the extremely tall bottom step of the cab and levered himself into the back seat. The mining business must be fairly lucrative because the work truck wasn’t the completely stripped down model with the crank windows. It had power everything and a cupholder in every place that Chip could put his hand down, but all of the truck’s finery was covered with a thick coat of gravel dust. That must be the downside of tearing wealth from the land, Chi thought, some of it gets on your leather seats.
The ride back down through the forest that Chip had navigated in slow, electric motion was much more of a thrill ride with Buck Lemaire behind the wheel. It wasn’t as if Chip had memorized each of the trees that he had narrowly squeaked by, but he did have the sense that he had traveled by individual trunks. With Buck driving, the trunks of the trees began to blur together and the brushy undergrowth was nothing but a green smear waiting to be run over by their aggressively treaded tires. When they got to the bottom of the hill where he had squeezed between two trees to supposedly lose Buck, Chip was surprised to find out that Buck had just driven around through the forest until he could get back to the track that Chip had wanted to feel so certain that only he could safely use. On the way back down, Buck just followed the rutted tire tracks that he had made on the way up, a sort of automotive equivalent of retracing your steps.
Once they reached the section of road that was still maintained by the park department, it was smoother sailing as the truck’s remarkable suspension absorbed most of the bumps that came from driving so fast over so many potholes. During the headlong ride down through the forest, no one had seemed to want to make small talk, but as the driving became more and more normal, Chip felt that he really should say something. He wasn’t sure what to say to someone who has just rescued you but may have murdered an old man in cold blood and broken numerous computed fraud statutes, so he just played it safe and started with “So, it’s a, uh, nice day, huh?”
Buck grinned and launched effusively into the historical weather narrative that only a country boy who is still in his home town can deliver. He covered the years that had been both hotter and colder than the current temperature and even touched on any relevant natural disasters from similar times of the year. Chip actually remembered some of the years that Buck was talking about, but he didn’t dare interrupt to remind Buck that he should remember more clearly that Chip was a nobody that Buck had known before rather than just a plain nobody from out of town.
By the time the neighborly weather chatter died down, Lurlene looked a bit queasy and she kept looking out the window for somewhere to rest her eyes that would be the least bit comforting. When Buck pulled the truck up alongside and maybe a little bit on top of the curb in front of his office building, Lurlene looked as if the entire block was covered in visual thumbtacks and her eyes darted from side to side as if she was considering which direction to run when she tried to flee from Fredrickton High’s top rushing quarterback of all time.
Chip tried again to hold up his side of the conversation with the man who had kindly given them a ride, and he asked “Um, is this a good place for us to catch a cab ride back to my place?” Buck chuckled at even the mention of a taxi ride. There was nothing that more clearly marked someone as a city slicker than the assumption of ever-present transportation for hire. The population density of Fredrickton on its most urban block wasn’t enough to keep even one taxi driver fed and clothed, so when you wanted to get somewhere in Fredrickton you drove your own damn truck or you walked and everyone wondered where your truck was.
“Oh, you won’t need a taxi tonight,” Buck chuckled jovially, “you can come in and fix up that problem I had that calls for someone with your talents, then I’ll give you a ride back to your place downtown.” Chip still wasn’t comfortable with the way that strangers referred to his dwelling place’s location as if it were a matter of public record, even though it was in this state. He just nodded and tried to think the best of Buck for having saved them rather than thinking the worst for the murderous tendencies he had been evidencing all the way back into his early teens.
“C’mon Lurlene, you and I can take a walk down Memorex Lane while your friend here does his work.” This was accompanied by the facial expression that best fit the term “leer” that Chip had ever seen. Saying “if you look it up in the dictionary, there’s a picture of your face” had gone out of style while Chip was still in middle school with these two, so he kept his excitement at such a vocabulary exemplar to himself.
Buck marched with them up to the top floor of the building where his office was located, giving directions with nods and gestures while apparently forgetting that both Lurlene and Chip had been to this office before. When they got to the office, Buck led Chip right over to a closet that Buck opened with a key. The closet was on the other side of the office from where Buck’s old desktop computer and its clever hitchhiker lay. When Chip started to ask what they were going to look at, Buck already started answering that question. “What are we—”, “I need some help with the network I think. That stuff’s over hear in a rack in this closet.” Buck pulled open the door and gestured to Chip, “In there. It’s in there.”
Chip peered into the closet, but the short, slanted ceilings and the tiny windows that poked through the grimy walls didn’t provide much light, so Chip had to peer forward looking for the tell-tale rows of blinking lights that signified some part of a computer network. Before Chip could think of asking for a flashlight to help him, Buck shoved him in bottom with a thick-soled boot and slammed the closet door behind Buck. With a yelp of surprise from Lurlene, Buck’s furry paw yanked open the door and pushed it ferociously closed behind Lurlene, leaving her and Chip trapped in the dark with not even a row of blinking lights for company.