XX: Car Trouble
Heat waves wiggled up from the endless freeway. There was no making sense of the pools of water that would waver into existence and evaporate into nothingness, except that it was clear we had entered Grant's territory of heat and fire. My skin burned and stuck together; beads of sweat trailing down my face and neck. I could feel thirst suffocate me slowly. Every now then I would manage to forget its constricting force, but the sight of mirage lakes would only serve to remind me of my slow death through dehydration.
I glanced over at Grant to see if he too was feeling the heat, so to speak. According to the map--for we decided that it would be best not to ever travel again without one--we were somewhere in the north of Spain. We'd crossed the Pyrenees carefully, camping out in caves and valleys like Beowulf and his heroic company. We hoped that the best route to escape was through the mountains, since it was perilous and, therefore, not expected.
But the European heat wave was proving to be quite deadly, not to mention, we had descended at a section of the mountain range where the foothills were by and large bare rock, poor for green growth and lacking in water. Hence, our dilemma.
"Grant," I started, unable to ignore any longer the itch of thirst, "Can't we just--,"
"No," he replied sternly. It wasn't like he was dying, since he relished the heat. Inconsiderate bastard. "We have to keep moving and get somewhere with a lot of immigrant movement, so we can live quietly without causing too much suspicion. We're going to have to lay low for some time, Lyn."
I rubbed my throat. "How long? I mean, yeah, we're now fugitives, technically. It's not like we belong on the Ground either. And what about these the Council and these humans and this puzzle--,"
"We can't do anything if we're caught--or dead, and they're the same at this point. Right now, our priority is survival. We can think of everything else later."
I grumbled, looking out the window in hope for a lake or large body of water.
"But I really think Merced's undercover," I mumbled to myself. There was no way he would work with humans. Okay, maybe he hadn't been perfect to me, but underneath, I was sure, he had to be a good elf. He had to be. I had chosen to go out with him, after all.
Grant scoffed beside me, "I wouldn't put it past him if he was a traitor."
I whirled around in my seat. "What do you have against him anyway? He's polite, hard-working, intelligent--,"
"Please," Grant interrupted, raising a hand from the steering wheel, "Your drool will flood this car. Let's try one-dimensional, opportunistic, sexist--,"
"You're just jealous." I felt my lower lip settle further in front of the one above it. What? What sort of response was that?
Grant barked a laugh.
Irked that he'd simply brushed the matter aside, I decided to dive into the politics we were currently dealing with, even though he'd declared that any matter other than our survival was not worth discussing.
But Grant surprised me by broaching the topic first, "Okay, okay. Say Merced is really undercover; this is how the situation looks like. There is some convoluted treasure hunt going on and the parties involved are humans that know of our existence, the Council and the Bureau, and whoever is holding the treasure."
Before he could continue, I said, "Not some convoluted treasure hunt, Grant. You know exactly what they're looking for. What is this about, really?" I saw Grant hesitate, his eyes hardening to close himself up. "No, none of that. We're running for our lives now--from everyone, and that includes the very people we worked for. So, honestly, as far as I'm concerned, you're the only one I can really trust anymore and if either one of us wants to get out of this mess alive, we're going to have to be honest with each other--and that means I need to know what the hell is going on. If you leave me in the dark, I'm that much more useless and a burden--a threat to your security--,"
My eyes bored into his profile in a death glare. He looked over at me and crumpled, chuckling.
"Okay, I get it." He reached over into the glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of water, like magic. It was hiding in there the entire time! "In short, I'm not really sure what this is about either--hey, will you calm down? I'll tell you what I know if you'd just be a little more patient--,"
"Time ticks to death," I seethed, tapping my watch violently.
Grant sighed. Enough delay. You can't procrastinate this any longer. "A few years ago, when we were getting out of university actually, I found a box with my birth records and pictures of humans while cleaning the attic. The box had that symbol you saw, you know, the crescent. And inside, the pictures were labeled 'Madgalena Fogo and her family.' And I wasn't sure any of it mattered until I saw that my birth records displaying my parents as Rea and Donlo were clearly forged and fake. My immediate thought was that it was some kind of joke or misunderstanding, but I came to know, after digging a bit more, that I'm really not my parents' son."
He slid into a full silence, and I let him brood for a moment before interrupting, "What about Magdalena? Could she be your mother?"
Grant sighed, "Yes, I thought about that. But there weren't any other birth records or documentation of any kind, so I really don't have proof of anything other than the fact that Rea and Donlo are not my biological parents."
Aside from the shock of the events today, particularly with the unveiling of Merced's treachery and our flight and whatnot, I suppose I couldn't quite handle any more shock. So, I plundered on as if Grant had simply told me that carrot cake is actually orange because of food dye.
"What is all this lock box nonsense?"
My handler looked at my searchingly. Searching for what I wasn't quite sure.
"Well, I've been figuring that stuff out along the way like you have. But if Magdalena, whoever she is, is actually my mother, then I must be a halfling, and halflings have not existed in many millennia, as you know--and from them the warlocks and witches and druids, basically, humans with magical powers, have descended. And since," here he hesitated but continued, "And since a halfing exists now, I am a point of curiosity, maybe a potential interspecies liaison--maybe I have a whole set of different powers and these people want that."
I was silent for a moment, trying to piece together the information he'd handed me.
"What about the mirror, the sculpture, and the lock box?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, but I think they're supposed to lead us to Magdalena, and I hope she, if she lives, can tell us what all of this means."
"Huh." I squirmed in my seat, not because of thirst or agitation over Grant's new history, but because Grant had decided to trust me with this information.
I was awakened by a jerk, an odd toot, and the screech of the axle. Having folded myself into the seat at weird angles, my neck was stiff and I began to feel my lower back cramp. The car lurched forward, and despite the belt, I fell out of the seat.
Grant looked frantically over at me, his hands glued to the steering wheel.
"Don't look at me!" he exclaimed. "You're the one who stole this piece of shit, and now it's breaking down!"
I looked out the window and saw that we were surrounded by acres and acres of wild grasslands. There was no civilization to speak of. If we broke down here, there would be no rescue.
"Pull over! Just stop the car before it completely breaks down." I wriggled my way back into the seat and rolled the window down to get some air. Wilting at the blast of heat that greeted me, I quickly rolled it back up.
Slowly, the tooting and whistling came to a culminating wail, and the car came to a dead halt.
We braced ourselves for the sweltering heat as we climbed out of the metal box and approached the front hood.
I made to lift the hood but Grant stopped me with a bark, "Don't touch it. It's really hot."
I glared at him, but assented, spreading my arms in front of me in a silent gesture, inviting him to try. Without pause, he stuck his fingers into a fine gap and pried the hood open.
The engine burped billows of steam into the open air. It looked plainly sick.
"Ah damn," Grant said, "I don't really know what I'm looking at…"
I let out a frustrated sigh, yanked the side door open again and rummaged through the glove compartment.
"What are you doing?" I heard him call from outside.
I emerged from the vehicle, my chest puffed out in victory. "The car manual."
Grant's perfectly bowed lips formed into a silent "o."
I flipped through the pages until I'd read enough to diagnose the problem. "It's overheated."
Grant rolled his eyes as if to call attention to the inferiority of manmade machines. "There's nothing to prevent that from happening?"
"There is," I said, pointing to the dirty white jug that was embedded within the machinery. "There's supposed to be coolant."
When Grant returned, dumbfounded, I told him to open the jug, aware of the remaining danger of getting burned. He followed my direction for once and twisted away the cap easily. I peered inside.
"Yup, it's empty," I said, almost smug about being correct.
"Okay, Ms Mechanic, what do you propose we do now?" His hand fluttered to our surroundings. "Maybe someone's selling coolant, you know, behind the horizon."
"Yes," I answered dumbly, upset that I'd lost my advantage over his ignorance.
Intolerant of the heat, I made my way back into the car. I heard the gravel gurgle as Grant followed me back inside.
Only a few moments passed until I threw in the towel and began to breathe cold air into the vehicle. I could feel my magic and energy seep away from me, but my newly cooled environment was worth the exertion.
I avoided Grant's chastising glance. It was dumb for me to use up my energy when we weren't sure how long we'd go without food and water. Moreover, the use of any magic was a dangerous gamble, since we could call attention to ourselves. It was why we couldn't just fly out of there.
I fingered the embossed patterns into the dashboard, trying to figure out a way out of our predicament.
A quiet tapping on the window began, and I looked at Grant wearily. Instead of stopping or lecturing me, he said, "I wonder, Lyn, how cold can you freeze things?"
What an odd question.
"I'm not sure, depends on the substance I suppose…"
Grant stroked his chin. Dark stubble had grown in over the last few days, leaving a jagged shadow along his jaw line that sharpened the angles of his face and hollowed the spaces beneath his cheek bones. His dark auburn hair was disheveled and wet with sweat, and large clumps of it fell languidly across his tired face. The past few months had dolled a beating to his youth, and Grant looked at least five to ten years older than he really was.
Distracted by the lines etched around his eyes, I caught the last few words.
"…nitrogen from the air into liquid…"
I jerked awake and asked him to repeat what he'd said.
He shook his head. "Yes, I know my dashing good looks can be distracting, but this is really not the best--,"
I smacked the back of his head, noticing, as an aside, that there were a few stray hairs of gray that had sprouted at the nape of his neck.
Grant whined like a piglet, but when I pushed him to continue, he said. "I was thinking we could liquefy the nitrogen in the air and use that as coolant."
I stopped and thought about it. There was some chance that it could work, and it was certainly worth a try.
And so, we reemerged from our cool fort and faced the coolant jug once more.
"Okay," I sighed, "okay…" I let the blue energy flood my senses and found the bouncing molecules of nitrogen in the air. I urged the energy to push the molecules closer together to precipitate from the air. But just as I managed to lock them together, they would spring apart, batting my magic away like a frail cobweb.
I plopped onto my butt on the road and looked up at Grant defeated.
"I'm too tired."
He looked at me with an "I told you so" expression and held a hand out to help me back up. "Come on, you can do this."
His voice was unusually kind, although, I suspected that it was his desperation of getting the car fixed and returning to our escape that was talking.
"I need more juice," I said matter-of-factly. Grant looked a little wary.
"It's already really hot, and my control is only so precise."
I held his gaze steady. "Well, would you let yourself incinerate me?"
A muscle flexed in Grant's the lower right corner of his jaw. "No."
"Okay," I said, as if that settled the matter. "I trust you."
The ex-Captain and handler nodded and tightened his grip around my hand.
My vision blurring into azure again, I instructed, "Steady flow, now, not quick bursts."
I felt his power, a pleasant ruby color, weave into my blood. It pumped through my veins, alighting my senses. I could feel my heart rate rise, and I breathed deeply, trying to flood my body with his sent and magic. I felt heady and, although I would never admit it, violently aroused.
Trying to rip my attention away from Grant and the feel of his magic in my veins, I turned to my task and caught the molecules once again in a draw string bag I'd woven with strings of my magic. I pulled the string, pushing the molecules together while cooling the temperature around them.
When I could feel the gas change to water, I hastily pushed the bag over to hover above the opening of the jug. Then, I wrung the bag tightly, letting liquid nitrogen pour into the container. When it was full, Grant quickly closed the jug with the cap, backed us away from the hood, and slammed the thing shut.
He let go of my hand slowly, so that I wouldn't go into shock from the sudden change in levels of energy. When were completely separated, I mourned the absence of his magic and the lonely emptiness it had left behind.
Suddenly dizzy and a little bit depressed, I trudged back to my seat and curled up into a fetal position, willing sleep to carry me away from my melancholy.
From a faraway place I heard the driver's side door shut and the key click into the ignition. The car roared to life again, and I smiled tiredly at our success. I felt my eyelids sag over my eyes, but before I slipped into unconsciousness, I felt that wonderful tingling sensation of a ruby fire enclose me in a protective cocoon. In the periphery of my vision, I saw that Grant was steering with one hand. The other lay on my shoulder.