Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
I dreamt about a bug my dad used to tell me about when I was a kid. When my dad was in the bush he saw something called a Buju Buju which he later says was one of the most unsettling experiences of his entire military career. He said the Buju Buju was about the size of a normal tick, except it was quite a bit nastier. Instead of merely biting you it would use its teeth to burrow into the flesh on your arm, and work its way into your body like a mole. There it would lay eggs that would hatch and grow into larvae that would eat their way out of your body and destroy you as they did so.
He saw a man with a Buju Buju infection once. They woke up in the bush and the man had the telltale divot on his arm that told him he had been infected. The man could feel the bug burrowing up his arm, slowly, and they could see a deep purple bruise up the side of his arm where the bug had made his path. They had to cut him open right there in the camp, wrapping a length of rope around his arm for a tourniquet and digging into his shoulder with a Bowie knife.
I’ve always had nightmares about the Buju Buju and I woke from one of those dreams that afternoon, shivering and shaking in the back of a flatbed pickup truck, nestled between a bale of hay and a cooler filled with beer and sandwiches. I had been picked up on the freeway by a farmer and his son heading towards Sacramento, and after hopping aboard the back of their truck I fell asleep for the remainder of the trip.
They stopped for lunch at a Denny’s in Woodland and I thanked them for the ride. The sun was high in the west, it was late in the afternoon. Perhaps the car had been discovered by now, perhaps not. I was far enough away that I felt relatively safe for the time being.
I set out from Denny’s with my thumb stretched towards the west. A late model minivan stopped and the back door slid open to let me in.
The driver was ten years older than me, maybe fifteen. He was remarkably well-preserved, however old he was. There was a young girl in the passenger seat of the car and a dog in the back.
“Come on in, buddy,” the man said. “Where you heading?”
“Berkeley,” I answered.
“Well, that’s perfect, we’re heading to San Jose. Throw your bag in the back and climb in with Rufus.”
Rufus lay sprawled across the back seat of the van, his outstretched reaching from window to window. He was a rottweiler, and a large one at that.
“Come on, Rufus,” the man exclaimed. “Make room.”
I wasn’t afraid of the dog but I was slightly intimidated. He cocked his eyebrows at me, as if to tell me that he didn’t have any desire to move on my account. But move he did, as the man continued to cajole him up from his sedentary position.
Finally I was able to settle myself on the edge of the bench. After a moment he ascertained that I was no danger, placed his head on my lap and returned to sleep.
The van pulled out of the breakdown lane and rejoined the freeway traffic.
“So,” the man began, “what’s a young fellow like yourself doing hitchhiking in this day and age?”
“Heh,” I replied, slightly nervous, “Don’t have much of a choice, really. My car broke down in Redding and I didn’t have the money for a bus ticket.”
“I can certainly understand that. I just wanted to ask because, well, most hitchhikers these days are kind of surly fellows, older . . . I haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in years, and certainly not with Princess in the car. But you looked like a regular stand-up kinda guy, and we got Rufus back there in case you try any kind of funny stuff.” He chuckled at this.
“Thank you Sir,” I said.
“So, you in college?”
“Actually, I just graduated last month.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “You didn’t look like a Berkeley man to me! If I’d have known that I wouldn’t have picked you up. I bleed Cardinal Red, myself.”
I smirked. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me. I was never very much of a partisan.”
“You weren’t, eh? I can see that.”
“I mostly just got frustrated by the traffic on the Big Game weekend.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet it was something else.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes. I was curious as to why the girl in the front seat was so quiet. She didn’t seem old enough to be very quiet for very long. Maybe she was shy. I put my hand on Rufus’ muzzle and scratched his chin. He seemed appreciative.
“Rufus likes you,” the man said. “Sometimes he doesn’t like people.”
“I’m glad he likes me,” I said. “I would hate to be on his bad list.”
He laughed again at that one. “Oh, his bark is definitely worse than his bite. That’s the thing with rottweilers that no one really knows . . . they have this reputation as big toughies but really they’re all just babies. I mean, you’ve never seen a gentler dog than Rufus, have you, Princess?”
“No, daddy, I haven’t,” the girl said with a very quiet voice.
“That’s right. And even among rottweilers Rufus there is the king of slugs, you know?”
“I can tell.”
“So, buddy,” the man said after another moment, “I’ve heard great things about you.”
“Don’t play dumb. There are a lot of people watching your career with great interest. I’m one of them . . . or, should I say, I represent their interests.”
Immediately I felt the cold sweat on my backbone and a ball of molten ingot in my belly. The car wasn’t slowing down. I was trapped. I remembered suddenly that my mother's boyfriend was a Stanford graduate as well.
“Don’t look so scared,” he said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He adjusted his rear view mirror in order to get a better look at me.
“But,” I said slowly, gulping for air, “but – but who are you?”
“A friend. Maybe a friend of a friend would be better to say. You know how these things work, I know someone who knows someone.”
“I see,” I said, trying to regain my cool.
“I knew your father.”
“You did?” I didn’t believe him.
“I fought with him in the Congo. We were both Thompson gunners working for the colonials. I remember he used to talk about this stash of diamonds he had supposedly stolen, a huge cache.”
This didn’t make any sense. My dad didn’t have a huge cache of diamonds. He certainly wouldn’t have talked about it if he did.
“I wonder where those rocks got to, all those years ago,” he said absent-mindedly, trying to act coy.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“Oh, I think maybe you do,” he replied. I caught a glimpse of him in the rear view mirror he had trained on me. His teeth were glinting in the sunlight. He was grimacing.
“I don’t. I don’t know anything about my dad. I don’t think you do either.”
“Don’t be petulant. No one likes a brat.”
“No, I’m serious. I don’t think you knew my dad. You’ve told me as much about my dad as you’d pick up from a pop song.”
“Ah, perhaps, perhaps. You are very astute.”
He reached to the dash and turned the radio dial. The cabin was filled with static for a moment until he found the right channel.
“Frequency 109.9,” he said clearly into the air, “this is Operator 8 calling from Interstate 80 between Vacaville and Vallejo. Over.”
There was a voice on the other end of the radio, speaking back at him. “Yes, we read you, Operator 8. Please report. Over.”
“I have the Prodigal and am en-route to Berkeley as per his request. Subject is docile. Over.”
“Very good, 8. Proceed according to plan. Over and out.”
The radio went dead. The man – whose name I began to realize I had never been given – turned the radio off and began to smile.
“I’m so very glad I was able to be here, to see you and help you on your way. You’re going to do some very important things, my friend. Very important.”
I didn’t know what to say, how to reply. I looked to my side and there was a large white eighteen-wheeler passing us on the left. The driver was large and hairy, and was staring at us very intently.
“That’s Jerry,” the driver said, “he’s Operator 11. He’s here to insure nothing goes wrong. Whenever you see a white truck like that, unmarked, with no bumper stickers and a government license plate, you can assume it’s us, doing our best to keep our eyes on you, keep you out of trouble.”
He waved the truck past us, passing the thumbs-up sign to the driver. The truck sped up and was soon passed us.
“That went well. I’m glad you’re taking this in good spirits. Really, we just want to help you. We know where you’re going and we know why you’re going there, we just don’t know how. That’s what you’re going to show us.”
“I’m not going to show you anything.”
“Yes, yes, we kind of figured you’d say that. Hey, you want a magazine?”
“Yeah. Reach into the back and there should be a big cardboard box. Grab a handful, however many you want.”
I reached behind me and there was indeed a cardboard box filled with magazines. I grabbed one and pulled it out apprehensively.
It was a thick magazine, with slick brightly-printed covers. A large neon ink logo announced the name of this magazine to be "YOUNG MEAT". There was a girl on the cover, a young girl no older than nine or ten. She was licking a lollipop, feigning a seductive pose but failing badly, in the disgusting way of small children who pretend to be sexual creatures.
I flipped through the pages and there were children everywhere – preteen boys and girls playing with themselves, playing with older men and women. Some of them were tied up, some of them were being brutalized and raped, covered in purple bruises. Some of them were dressed like sailors and shepherds.
“Do you like it?” the man asked eagerly. “That’s my little Princess on the cover. She’s going to be a star, you know? She’s got that quality to her. It’s magical when she gets in front of the camera.”
I took a closer look at the picture on the front of the magazine.
“Flip to the middle spread, that’s where her pictures are . . .”
I did. There were pictures of her being tied up on a wooden table and sodomized, just the worst filth you could imagine. There was blood.
“This is sick,” I said.
“No, it’s business. We all got to pay the rent. You want it? You can have it, I’ve got boxes and boxes full.”
I placed the magazine back in the box. I felt ill, physically sick and dizzy. I didn’t have a clue where I was and I felt vaguely ashamed. I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight, wherever I was.
“Don’t worry, we’ll set you down safe and sound in Berkeley, just like you said. Just relax and rest, and leave the driving to us.”
I didn’t say anything for the rest of the trip. Rufus slept with his head in my lap, blissfully unaware of anything that went on around him. I felt bad for the dog, in that life, but he seemed well fed and taken care of.
He took the off-ramp in Berkeley and stopped at a gas station to let me out. I grabbed my duffel bag and jumped out the door as fast as I could.
“Hey,” he said, calling out to me, “you be careful now. There’s some bad people out there, and they don’t all have your best interests at heart like we do.”
“Thanks,” I said weakly, still quite confused. I looked once again at the girl in the front passenger seat. Her face was blank, unresponsive, uninterested in me or in her father or anything. I wondered, for as long as I could stand, just what horrors she had seen in her short life to inspire such awestruck silence.