FIC: Sweet Home Alabama (X-Men: Scott, Charles, Bobby, Ororo, Logan)
Title: Sweet Home Alabama
Author: Rachel Martin
Verse: X-Men Movieverse. Starts at the beginning of X3, when Scott leaves the mansion, and immediately goes AU.
Summary: Scott saves a life along the highway and learns that no good deed goes unpunished.
Rating: PG-13 for language. A mention of abortion that may offend some readers.
Word Count: 7,437
Characters: Scott, Charles, Bobby, Ororo, Logan. Jean gets talked about a lot.
Disclaimer: The X-Men universe is the property of Marvel Comics and 20th Century Fox. No money is being made and no infringement is intended.
Thanks to ridesandruns for the inspiration!
Music mentioned in this story: On this highway, thirty people lost their lives: "Graveyard Train" by CCR. I’ve got to run to keep from hiding: "Midnight Rider" by the Allman Brothers. Sweet home Alabama, where the sky’s always blue: "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. On a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha: "Turn the Page" by Bob Seger (I like the Metallica version better). The road to nowhere leads to me: "Road to Nowhere" by Ozzy Osborne. Other artists mentioned: George Thorogood, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Scott called Charles from a truck stop near Cleveland about eight hours after leaving the Institute.
“Scott!” The relief in Charles’ voice was almost palpable.
Scott swallowed a mouthful of coffee and put his mug down on the stained counter. “How was London?”
“Fine. Fine. This isn’t your number.”
“Dropped my cell in the hotel pool. This is a TracFone, picked it up at a K-Mart.”
Eggs, bacon, sausage, homefries. Scott hadn’t eaten like this in years. He was sorry, now, to think of all the deliciously greasy meals he’d passed up.
“Scott, where are you?”
“Virginia.” He was thankful telepathy didn’t work over phone lines. “Norfolk.”
Charles was silent for an appreciable moment. “That’s. . . a long way to drive.”
“Well, when you’re not driving a van full of cranky kids, it’s amazing how much distance you can cover.”
“I suppose so.” Charles hesitated before asking delicately, “What are you doing in Virginia?”
“Taking a vacation.”
Scott stuffed a strip of bacon into his mouth and chewed during the befuddled silence.
Eventually Charles asked, “Haven’t you led enough class trips to Williamsburg?”
“Figured I’d visit the Yorktown battlefield. Maybe head west to Appomattox. See what I want to see, for a change.” Scott looked into the heavy ceramic coffee mug to confirm that it was empty. “That’s the whole point of a vacation.”
“Oh, yes. Yes. Certainly. But isn’t this all a bit sudden?”
“Scott, wait, please. It isn’t safe for you to drive. The medication I prescribed – you shouldn’t drive while you’re taking it. I thought I had explained that to you.”
“You did.” Scott speared the last of the scrambled eggs on his fork and pushed them into his mouth.
“You stopped taking your medication?”
“Like you said, I can’t drive and take that shit too.”
“Are you – how are you doing?”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Charles didn’t sound glad. “How long will you be away, again?”
“Who’s covering your classes?”
“Hired a sub.”
“I really think – ”
“I have to go now. Talk to you later.” Scott shut off the TracFone and dropped it into the pocket of his jacket.
The diner was steamy-warm and pleasant-smelling. The food more than made up for the feeble fluorescent lighting, the battleship-gray walls, the cracked linoleum and the torn vinyl seats. The lone waiter/busboy walked by, refilled Scott’s coffee cup and grinned at him. “Rough night, huh?”
“Oh. . . yeah. Yeah.” He tapped his dark glasses and assumed a rueful smile.
“Guess it hasn’t affected your stomach any.” The kid gestured at Scott’s clean plate. “You want something else?”
He shook his head. The waiter fished a pad out of his hip pocket and scribbled on it. Scott thought the waiter didn’t look any older than sixteen. Sixteen and working the night shift in a truck stop on a school night. “Where you heading?”
Scott shrugged. “Guess you could drive all the way to San Francisco on this road,” he said vaguely.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, you could.” The boy looked wistful. “Always thought that would be something to do.”
“Well, maybe you’ll do it, someday.”
This time the kid’s smile looked forced. He put down the check and walked away to minister to the diner’s only other customer.
Scott left enough bills and change next to his plate to cover his check. He wrapped an extremely generous tip in a napkin, folded it over and scribbled on it, “San Francisco.” He left the napkin on top of his plate, put his jacket back on and stepped outside into the cold, clear October night.
The lights of an all-night gas station blazed to his right. Cars and trucks roared a couple of hundred yards away on the interstate, heading for Detroit and Chicago, maybe even San Francisco. He walked across the parking lot to the battered old Ford pick-up truck with the New York plates and climbed in.
Scott keyed the ignition and turned on the heater. As the cab warmed up he reached into the glove box and swapped his glasses for his visor. He fumbled in the pockets of his jacket, pulled out his deactivated team phone and chucked it under the bench seat. His GPS-enabled Iridium satellite cell phone currently posed no more of a threat to his plans than the Cerebro, which, six months after Stryker’s invasion, still wasn’t in working order.
Scott took a deep breath of warmed air and began coughing. Stealing Logan’s truck from the Institute’s garage had seemed a perfectly hilarious idea at the time. He had completely forgotten that it would reek of cigar smoke. Worse yet, the radio was broken. Scott resignedly examined the box of CDs on the floorboards. Allman Brothers Band, Bob Seger, Creedence Clearwater Revival, George Thorogood, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He’d heard of Bob Seger, CCR and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He jammed a CCR disk into the player.
On this highway, thirty people lost their lives . . . .
Grimacing, Scott forwarded the disk to “Born on the Bayou." He spun the truck around the gravel parking lot and headed for the Interstate 80 on-ramp.
Scott got as far as Gary, Indiana before giving in to the need for sleep. He found a cheap motel just off the highway and secured a room with a pre-paid credit card bearing the improbable name of John Smith.
Despite the noise from the Interstate and the adjoining rooms Scott slept hard and dreamlessly for six hours. He woke around nine in the morning to a clap of thunder and the sound of rain pounding against the windows.
He felt a bit groggy, nothing a few cups of coffee couldn’t take care of. He felt pretty good, actually.
“You were right, honey,” he said out loud. “Those pills were messing me up.”
The rainstorm extended for hundreds of miles across the Midwest. It followed him for 160 miles through Illinois and 300 miles across Iowa and brought on flooded roads and an early twilight. In Iowa City the rain turned into flurries and sleet. Scott had not planned to stop in Omaha – oh hell no – but found himself forced to stop there anyway as driving conditions worsened.
He went nowhere near Offutt Air Force Base, not that he could have gained access anyway, or Boys Town. Instead he parked in the Old Market area by the Missouri River, a part of Omaha he only vaguely remembered. His childhood memories certainly didn’t include the fancy shops and restaurants, although, oddly enough, he did remember the cobblestone streets.
Scott ducked out of the rain/sleet into a coffee house on Howard Street that called itself The Meeting Place. It was a comfortably appointed spot, homey, with clusters of students spreading out their work on tables. It might have been a room at the Institute, and Scott found himself relaxing. He took off his wet jacket, inhaled the odor of homemade soup and belatedly realized he hadn’t eaten since the diner in Cleveland.
Scott ordered not only coffee but a sandwich, a salad and a bowl of soup. Settling down on one of the sofas, he thumbed on the TracFone. There were no messages waiting for him, because he had specifically not bought a package that included voice mail or texting. He punched in Bobby’s number from memory.
“That’s ‘Dad,’ you disrespectful brat.” Scott picked up his sandwich.
“Yeah, yeah, you try explaining to your roommate why your dad is only ten years older than you are.”
“I was a precocious child. So how’s it goin,’ college boy?”
“Oh, man, you wouldn’t believe it. The other day at practice. . . .”
Scott relaxed back against the sofa and ate one-handedly as Bobby talked. Classes, professors, dorm life, homework, tests, hockey practice. As Scott swallowed the last of his soup, Bobby said, “Hey, Marie called me this morning. She says you’re in Virginia on a Civil War tour.”
“Oh, yeah, that. Changed my mind. Drove to Branson, Missouri.”
“The family-friendly Las Vegas,” Scott intoned.
Bobby had lived long enough at the Institute to develop a New Yorker’s distrust of the world beyond the Hudson. “It’s freaking Deliverance country, is what it is! The Ozarks! Are you crazy?”
Scott looked out the rain-lashed windows onto Howard Street. “Well, it looks pretty safe. Might get mugged by a Dolly Parton impersonator, I dunno.”
“And you took Logan’s truck?”
Scott laughed. “Poetic justice, yeah?”
“Holy Mary Mother of God.” Bobby started to laugh as well. “He’s gonna kill you, you know that, don’t you?”
“Way I see it, he owes me a Mazda. Speaking of which – I never told you this because, well. But the Mazda – that was supposed to be your graduation present.”
“Are you kidding? Shit! Now I really wanna find John. So I can beat the crap out of him. You really were gonna give me that car? I mean you spent like a year fixing it up.”
“We spent a year fixing it up.” He hadn’t allowed Bobby or anyone else to see the sports car until he’d discarded the blood-soaked upholstery and knocked out the windshield with the tell-tale head-sized hole. Scott’s junkyard bargains all came equipped with sinister histories.
“Aw, shit,” Bobby moaned. “Shit!”
“So, look. I want you to have the Harley instead.”
“What?” Bobby’s voice cracked as though he were fourteen again. “Are you kidding?”
“Holy shit! The Harley? Are you serious?”
“Yep. It’s officially yours. Title and registration in your name. You should get the Fed-Ex tomorrow.”
“Holy shit! Holy shit! That’s unbelievable!” Bobby’s voice deepened and slowed. “Un-fucking-believable.”
“Well, believe it. Happy belated graduation.”
“Yeah. Yeah, thank you. Thanks. Not that I’m giving it back or anything, but why are you giving me your bike?”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Because I love you, jackass. Now drop and give me fifty in front of the Lifetime Channel.”
“Well, gotta go. All this caring and sharing’s got me beat.”
“Hey, Scott, wait a sec, Scott? How’re you – how you doing?”
“Oh, I’m having a great time.”
“I mean, you know what I mean. You sleeping okay?”
“Oh, yeah, fine. Later, huh?”
Scott shut off the TracFone. He stared at it a moment before sticking it back into the pocket of his jacket.
He checked his watch. Seven o’clock. Crappy weather. He thought about finding a motel for the night. He remembered he was in Omaha.
Twenty minutes later Scott was northbound on Interstate 29, having spent less than two hours in the last place he had ever lived with his parents and brother.
Well, I’ve got to run to keep from hiding
And I’m bound to keep on riding
And I’ve got one more silver dollar
But I’m not gonna let 'em catch me, no
Not gonna let ’em catch the midnight rider
The Allman Brothers were surprisingly good company. Scott hated to admit it even to himself, but he was enjoying Logan’s CD collection. He’d heard very few of the songs before, just the occasional tune that had managed to break into the pop charts. Idly he calculated how much money it was going to cost Logan to replace his CDs. And his truck.
Interstate 29 was empty except for the occasional long-hauler and Department of Transportation sanders. Not a single artificial light relieved the darkness along the highway. The mixed rain, snow and sleet had tapered off but the road remained slick. Scott had hoped to make it all the way to the Interstate 90 interchange before calling it a night but figured that was probably too ambitious a goal.
The CD started over at track one and Scott popped it out. He leaned sideways across the seat, chose another CD at random from the box, and glanced down at the cover.
On the periphery of his vision he registered a streak of movement as something shot across the highway. The average driver would not even have noticed it. Though Scott’s visor it blazed like a ground-level meteorite. Scott jerked upright and dropped the CD. With no thought whatsoever he stomped the clutch to the floor and wrapped his hand around the stick.
The seatbelt kept Scott from going headfirst through the windshield as he clutched and downshifted, using the engine rather than the brakes to slow his momentum. The pick-up skidded over icy patches, veering wildly to the right and left as Scott concentrated on steering down in the center of the deserted highway. The RPMs dropped precipitously but not nearly fast enough. When the Ford was still sliding forward at forty miles an hour he knew he had lost control, but he was damned if Logan’s truck was going to be the death of him. He brought his foot down on the clutch again, hauled the steering wheel around and shifted into first.
Tires screaming, engine roaring, the truck spun on two wheels in a complete circle in the middle of I-29. It fell heavily down on all fours, spun again ninety degrees, and rocked to a halt as Scott stepped on the clutch again and finally, gently, tapped the brakes.
Scott sat, hands clenching the steering wheel, heart pounding painfully in his chest. His breathing sounded harsh and noisy in his ears; he coughed as the stench of burned rubber invaded the interior of the cab. A click-click-click noise under the hood seemed as loud as a time bomb.
Shakily he keyed off the engine, unbuckled the lap-and-shoulder belt, and climbed out. He put the Ford in neutral and pushed it to the shoulder of the road. The headlights streamed twin beams of lights backward, southward, illuminating the long trail of burned rubber left behind. He set the parking brake and walked unsteadily down the middle of the highway, following the skid marks, until he sighted a lump along the side of the road and squatted down.
Of course it wasn’t a child. Of course it wasn’t. But it wasn’t a deer or a fox or a coyote either. It was a cat. An ordinary striped cat. It was intact, its guts weren’t splattered along the asphalt, but its head was twisted unnaturally around and it was very obviously dead.
Scott sat down heavily on the gravel shoulder next to the cat. “Oh, God,” he mumbled. To his horror he felt tears welling up in his eyes. “Oh, God,” he said again, and began crying.
He took off his visor and put his hands over his eyes and cried. He cried until his chest hurt, until he could hardly breathe, until he was dry-heaving. He imagined what would happen if a state trooper drove up and found him sitting on the side of the Interstate, crying and retching. It’s just a cat, he thought bewilderedly. It’s just a cat.
Endless minutes later he finally got himself under control. He concentrated on deep breathing for another minute, opened up his jacket, wiped his eyes and his nose with his flannel shirt, and put his visor back on.
The highway remained absolutely silent, empty as the end of the world.
He got up and trudged to the pick-up and opened the metal locker bolted into its bed. Whatever else might be said of Logan, the man didn’t try traveling through the prairie provinces without a complete winter survival kit. Scott rummaged through the locker, pulled out a shovel and some car rags, and trudged back to the scene of the crime.
He couldn’t understand what a cat was doing running across I-29. He hadn’t seen a house or barn for miles. Someone, no doubt an angry, exasperated Captain Daddy, had at some point pulled over to the side of the road, opened the car door and thrown the family pet out. Scott didn’t know why he gave a damn. He didn’t even like cats.
Nevertheless, he walked a little way into the empty field bordering the highway to dig a miniature grave. He wrapped the cat in the car rags and placed it in the hole. It was as he picked the cat up that he noticed the enlarged nipples along her belly.
Oh, fuck, he thought drearily. But he was all cried out. Scott put down the shovel and straightened up.
He figured it would be a miracle if he found the cat’s nest. But his visor granted him the night vision of a predator. He walked slowly forward into the tall grass, along the route the cat seemed to have been taking, looking to the right and left.
His ears actually detected the nest before his eyes did. The tiny, frantic cries led him southwest about a quarter-mile to a huddle of three kittens. Presumably coyotes had made off with the rest of the litter. And of the three, only one was still squirming and mewing.
He crouched, picked it up by the scruff and held it at face level. A tiny striped female – he had no idea how old she might be. The kitten opened her eyes and hissed at him, revealing nubby little teeth. For good measure she smacked his visor with one paw.
Damn, it was cold. Scott cogitated a moment before partially unzipping his jacket and tucking the kitten into an inner mesh pocket. The ungrateful beast nipped at his gloved fingertips. Even through his flannel overshirt and thermal undershirt he felt tiny claws pricking his skin.
Scott picked up the two dead kittens and carried them back to the small grave, where he placed them beside their mother and filled in the hole. Back inside the cab of the truck, he opened up his jacket, took the survivor out and set her down. She immediately got up and staggered away from him across the bench seat. Scott reached over and scooped her up before she could fall into the crevice between the seat and passenger side door and stuck her inside his flannel.
As the kitten squirmed and clawed and hissed, Scott looked around the cab and noticed his growing collection of McDonald’s bags on the floorboards. He leaned over and retrieved several Half ’n Half containers from one bag.
The kitten got the idea pretty damn quick and settled down to suck at the soaked hem of his cotton tee. Scott sat there for about twenty minutes, petting the creature and feeding her coffee creamer, until, between one suck and the next, she fell asleep.
Did kittens need to be burped? Experimentally Scott draped her over his shoulder and tapped her spine several times with his index finger. To his shock she did burp, depositing a small amount of goo on his flannel.
“Oh, crap,” he mumbled. He tucked the still-sleeping kitten under his thermal, stripped off his flannel and tossed it out the window.
Finally, finally, Scott stuck the key in the ignition. He was genuinely surprised when the cold engine idled back to life. He turned the truck around and drove slowly north again, hardly able to believe the Ford was still in functioning condition. God bless Detroit.
He drove, and for eighty miles he did not think of William Stryker or Erik Lensherr or Logan or even Jean. His world was reduced to the glowing instrument panel before him, the oily darkness sliding alongside the windows, the kitten rumbling against his belly and the music pouring out of the speakers. “Sweet home Alabama,” he sang softly, “where the sky’s always blue. Sweet home Alabama, Lord, I’m coming home to you.”
He drove into Sioux Falls around eleven, drove down 12th Street and beheld to his amazement a 24 hour Wal-Mart Super Center. Scott woke the kitten up, put her down in the parking lot to piddle, and then stuck her back inside his jacket for the duration of his shopping expedition. He went straight to the baby section and picked up a can of powdered Enfamil, some bottled water, and six tiny glass jars of Gerber’s pureed chicken. After a moment’s thought he also bought a few eye droppers, a stack of towels and a diaper bag to carry all the shit in.
He ventured into the pet section, stared in amazement at the dazzling display of goods for capitalistic kitties, and fled. He didn’t buy any cat litter, because he had no idea how a cat got trained to use a litter box. He decided after he found a motel he’d lock the animal in the bathroom for the night and just clean the mess off the tiled floor in the morning.
The kitten had other ideas. She ignored the nice fleece jacket liner he put down on the bathroom floor. She scratched at the door, poked her tiny nose under the crack and cried until his guilty conscience rousted him out of bed. Desperate for sleep and lacking better ideas, Scott put the kitten next to his head on the pillow. Instantly she burrowed into his shaggy hair and began purring and kneading his scalp. Scott resigned himself to waking up with cat piss and shit in his hair and fell asleep.
Scott didn’t have any dreams, good, bad or indifferent, because he hardly slept. The kitten awakened him roughly every two hours all night long, mewing loudly and piteously in his ear. Each time he sat up and untangled her from his hair, staggered to the bathroom, mixed up a couple of ounces of formula, and held her in one hand while using the eyedropper to feed her. Then he burped her, remembering to cover his shoulder with a couple of napkins first. Then he put his jacket on, took her outside into the freezing cold and put her down in the tall grass and weeds edging the gravel parking lot, hoping she would figure out that she was supposed to do her business outdoors and not in the motel room. Which she did figure out, immediately. He wondered if all cats were that smart or if he’d just found the Rhodes Scholar of cats.
He was so tired the next morning he didn’t check out of the motel until eleven o’clock, and then he drove straight to a self-service auto shop to hoist the truck onto a lift and examine it for damage. And then it was time to feed the cat again. Around two he figured it was time to feed himself and he found a small mom ’n pop restaurant managing to eke out an existence in defiance of the Denny’s across the street.
He tried to leave the kitten in the car but imagined he could hear her wailing all the way across the parking lot. He stuck her back inside his shirt and finally, finally, got inside the restaurant and got his hands around a blessed cup of coffee.
Scott was halfway through a home-cooked meal when the kitten started mewing peremptorily. Zombie-like, he unzipped his jacket, took her out and set her down on the tabletop. She batted a wadded-up napkin back and forth across the formica as he opened up a container of Half ’n Half and loaded the eyedropper he had stuck inside one of his pockets.
“Oh!” A high-pitched feminine squeal caused to Scott look up apprehensively. But the heavily pregnant waitress, who looked all of twelve years old, did not seem inclined to kick him the hell out for violating a myriad of health codes. “He’s so tiny! Can I hold him?”
“Her,” Scott mumbled. “Sure. No, wait. Don’t want her to scratch you.”
“Oh, that’s okay, cats love me, she won’t hurt me.”
“No, just, it’s time to feed her. She gets cranky if she doesn’t get fed.” Scott scooped the kitten up in one hand and brandished the eye dropper.
“You’re hand-feeding her?” The waitress got misty-eyed. “You’re so sweet! My husband doesn’t like cats.”
“What’s her name?”
Scott opened his mouth to explain that he hadn’t named the cat because he wasn’t keeping her. “Alabama,” he said.
“That’s so cute! Is that where you’re from?”
Scott stared at the girl in mute horror.
“Hey!” A fat-bellied man on the other side of the tiny restaurant bellowed. “Can I get some coffee over here or do I gotta go all the way to Omaha to get it?”
The girl suddenly looked unhappy. “Well, I gotta go.”
“Wait, wait, uh, do you know where there’s an animal shelter?”
“Yeah. . . what for?”
“Oh, I was thinking of picking up another cat,” Scott lied instantly, “to keep her company.”
“Oh! Yeah, it’s on Benson Road. Take a right out of our parking lot, take a right at the stop sign, and that takes you onto Benson. The shelter is just before the highway.”
Scott left enough bills next to his plate to pay for his meal. He wrapped one of his pre-paid credit cards in a napkin and also left it next to his plate. He didn’t really believe the girl would use the card to get the hell out of South Dakota, get a divorce and get an abortion, so he just wrote, “Take care of yourself” on the napkin.
He stowed the cat back inside his jacket and left.
The sweet old lady at the front desk at the animal shelter got distinctly frosty when Scott explained the real reason for his visit. She took Alabama from his hands and examined her. Alabama bared her tiny fangs and popped her tiny claws. Scott choked and started laughing. This endeared him even less to the old lady.
“Well, of course you can’t leave her here. My goodness, she can’t be more than six weeks old. Five or six. She’s going to need hand-feeding for another two or three weeks at least. And we certainly don’t have the staffing for that.”
Scott immediately sobered. “Three weeks?” he asked faintly.
“What are you feeding her?"
"Uh, Half 'n Half?"
"Oh, my goodness gracious. I'll give you a couple of packets of KMR but you really need to take her to a vet."
"Did you say three weeks?"
"Yes." The old lady thrust Alabama at him. Before he could duck out of the way, the cat had hooked her claws into his flannel shirt. Automatically he brought his hands up to cup her against his chest.
“But, but, I can’t. I can’t do this,” he said desperately. “I have to be somewhere, I have things to do. Like, you know, sleep.”
The old lady tucked some packets of powdered kitty formula into Scott's pockets and shoved him out the door.
Scott stood on the front steps of the shelter and looked vacantly around. It was a beautiful day, cold, clear and sunny. A perfect day for driving.
Alabama nibbled his chin affectionately and meowed. Loudly.
Scott sat down on the steps and fished a container of Half ’n Half out of his pocket.
Scott had left Westchester with a purpose. A focus. A plan. A schedule.
That was before he acquired a cat.
About a hundred miles west of Sioux Falls he pulled over to the side of the road and fell sound asleep across the bench seat. He woke up in time to see the sunset. And feed the cat. And find an exit and a motel. And feed the cat. He fashioned a makeshift collar and leash from strands of tow rope and took her outside for an evening constitutional around the motel. Back inside, he changed into a tee and sweatpants, sat on the edge of the bed and called Ororo.
“Scott, what the fuck? Branson?”
He watched Alabama climb inside his latest McDonald’s bag. The bag began locomoting across the floor in a most disconcerting manner. “Huh?”
“Branson! Branson! And you stole Logan’s truck? He’s gonna kill you.”
“First he has to catch me.”
“Yeah, well, you better start checking your rearview mirror, bro, cuz he’s on his way to Branson even as we speak.”
“I’m in San Antonio.”
“Wait, you’re in Texas now?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t get a ticket to the Kenny Rogers show anyway.”
“Who are you and what have you done with Scott?”
“Oh, you know. Making some changes.”
“Yeah. Yeah, Charles said. . . .” Ororo fell silent a moment. “Charles talked to me yesterday. Asked me to take over the school.”
Scott wasn’t angry. And he wasn’t shocked. If anything, he was shocked Charles had waited so long to make a change in leadership. “What’d you say?”
“Told him to go fuck himself. When are you coming home?”
Scott picked at the cheap flowered bedspread. “I may be gone a while.”
“I want you to take over the school.”
“I want you to take over the team.”
“Scott, what the hell are you saying?”
“I’m not the right person for the job, not anymore. You are. You’re ready. You have been for a long time.”
“This is crazy!” Ororo’s voice was trembling. “Listen to me, asshole. You can’t quit the team. There isn’t any team without you.”
“If the team falls apart without me, then I guess I really did fuck things up.”
“Scott, you can’t do this. I can’t do this.”
“Yeah, you can. I’ve been holding you back, Ro. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
“Scott, goddammit – ”
He shut off the TracFone and dropped it on the nightstand.
Alabama burst out of the McDonald’s bag, galloped across the floor and took a flying leap onto Scott’s foot. She anchored her front claws into his shin, sank her teeth into his ankle and began kicking his instep with her hind legs.
“Ow!” Startled, Scott shook his foot. The kitten lost her grip and fell off. She re-grouped and attacked his toes.
Scott took the stirrer out of his McDonald’s coffee cup. He got down on his hands and knees on the unclean carpet and waved the stirrer in front of Alabama’s nose. She pounced.
Scott played with the damn cat and didn’t let himself think about anything else at all.
On a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha
You can listen to the engine moaning out its one-note song
You can think about the woman or the girl you knew the night before
But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do
When you're riding sixteen hours and there's nothing much to do
And you don't feel much like riding, you just wish the trip was through
Interstate 90 seemed to roll forever though the Great Plains. The monotonous landscape was broken only by the Missouri River crossing and, of course, the Wall Drug billboards along the side of the road.
Scott cranked up the stereo, bought an industrial-sized coffee and a bottle of ephedra capsules at one of the few-and-far-between gas stations, and grimly resolved not to stop driving until he had crossed the state line into Wyoming. The cat had other plans, of course.
All wrapped up in his jacket liner, Alabama would suck on his little finger and sleep as sweetly as an angel in his lap for about two hours at a time. As soon as she started squirming he would stomp on the brakes and veer over to the side of the road. Then he would put the leash and collar on her and let her run in the tall grass. Then he would feed her. Then he would let her run in the grass again. Then he would wipe her fur down with a damp cloth. Finally, finally, he would get back on the road.
Despite the old lady's dire words, it seemed to Scott that Alabama was thriving on a diet of Half ’n Half and Enfamil. Nevertheless, he started using the KMR powder, and at one stop he opened up a Gerber’s jar and smeared some pureed chicken over her nose and mouth. This resulted in much indignant sneezing and pawing and licking. He figured at least some of it had gone down her gullet. He didn’t have any way to refrigerate the jar so he just closed it up and tossed it into one of the McDonald’s bags piling up on the floorboards.
He didn’t even make it as far as Rapid City that day, never mind Wyoming. The sun was low in the sky when he gave up and took the exit to the megalopolis of Wall, South Dakota. He toured Wall Drug, gassed up and found a room at a motel. And only because the TV in his room didn’t work he got back in the truck and drove a few miles to the Badlands National Park.
He paid the entrance fee and drove up the road to the first pull-off and got out. He sat on the hood of the truck feeding Alabama and watching the sun set over the haunted landscape. Frothy foamy waves of red-orange rock extended as far as he could see, as if a petrified ocean had erupted up from under the prairie. He remembered the Badlands. He remembered his dad flying the family from Offutt to Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City and driving them to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.
When the sun was gone he switched his glasses for his visor and drove back to Wall.
The drowning dream woke him in the middle of the night. He bolted upright in bed, gripping his throat, gasping and coughing, Jean’s angry recriminations ricocheting around in his head.
In all his thrashing about Alabama got flung right off the bed. Slowly he became aware of her frightened mewing. It was such an incongruous sound that it brought him all the way awake.
Shakily he fumbled the lamp on, leaned over the side of the bed and scooped the kitten up off the floor. He held her against his chest and petted her until she calmed and started demanding to eat. The routine of feeding her was equally, blessedly mundane.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t know who he was apologizing to, the animal or Jean.
Scott was too afraid to get under the shower. He threw on his clothes and barreled out of South Dakota as the sun rose.
Scott ignored the turnoffs to Sturgis, Deadwood and Devil’s Tower. He drove right past the state road that led to Yellowstone National Park. Scott blew through Wyoming, hit the I-15 interchange at sunset and headed north.
Three hours later he parked the truck in front of a motel in Sweetgrass, Montana. The end of Interstate 15. The end of the road. He was less than a mile from Coutt, Alberta, the largest border crossing in the Midwest.
This time Scott was actually glad to be awakened throughout the night by the damn cat. Between feedings, he studied the geological survey maps he had spread out over the floor. By morning he would be on Alberta 4. By evening he would be in Cold Lake. He’d sell the piece-of-shit truck for whatever he could get, empty his bank accounts, max out his credit cards, whatever it took to outfit himself for the last leg of his journey.
There had been a road to Alkali, once, when it was a functioning dam. The entire highway between Cold Lake and Alkali had been ripped up and planted over with trees in the late 1970s after the Canadian Forces had requisitioned the industrial complex. Now the military mind could not fathom anyone entering Alkali Valley except by helicopter. So while missile batteries and radar dishes ringed the icy blue lake, no one guarded the native trail over Alkali Pass. It was nothing Scott would ever have known, had Logan not mentioned it, once.
Scott realized he could snowmobile only so far. He’d have to climb the pass, nine thousand feet high. The snow was sure to be deep already. And once he’d made the descent into Alkali Valley he’d have to evade the Canadian and American military police guarding the underwater ruins of the former base.
Obviously he couldn’t take a kitten along.
He jerked his head up at a loud meow and beheld Alabama climbing the bubbled wallpaper. She got about three feet off the floor before she started sliding down the wall, claws extended and shredding the wallpaper away in large curling scrolls.
He put his face in his hands and groaned.
The road to nowhere leads to me.
“I owe you for damages,” Scott said at checkout.
“What the hell did you do?”
“I tore the wallpaper off the walls.”
“Gimme a hundred and we’ll call it even.”
Scott forked over $25 for his room and $100 for the wallpaper and drove to a diner for breakfast.
He didn’t enjoy his meal very much, although the food was good. He had fed Alabama before leaving the motel so when she started meowing inside his jacket he knew she was just being a brat. Nevertheless, Scott unzipped his jacket, took her out, and placed her on the table. Idly he waved a paper napkin in front of her. Alabama pranced and pounced.
“She’s so sweet!” the waitress cooed by his right ear, startling him. “Can I hold her?”
“Sure. Just don’t let her scratch you. She gets nervous around strangers.”
The waitress looked like a nice woman, despite the inexpertly bleached hair and the excessive makeup that did not conceal the lines of her careworn face. She looked about forty-five. Scott suspected she was no older than thirty-five. The tag on her pink uniform identified her as “Candi.”
Candi cupped the kitten in her hands and didn’t do anything stupid like try to rub noses. “What’s her name?”
“That’s so cute! Is that where you bought her?”
Scott pushed the eggs around on his plate. Abruptly he put down his fork and leaned forward. “I’ll give you fifty bucks to take her.”
“I need to find a home for her. Right away.”
Candi looked flabbergasted. “Uh. . . .”
“A hundred. Please. I’m heading north and I can’t take her with me.” Scott leaned forward. “Look, I won’t lie to you. She’s only six weeks old and she needs to be hand-fed. That’s why I’m giving you the money. You’ll earn it, believe me.”
“Well, it’s just I’ve already got. . . .”
“Please.” Scott pulled out his wallet and extracted five twenties. He held the bills out, hating himself. Easy to guess this woman was in no position to refuse easy money. He fixed a pleading look on his face. “You’d be doing me a huge favor.”
“Well, I guess. . . .” The woman stared a little too long at the twenties and looked away, face flushing under the pancake makeup. “Sure, why not. All right.”
Scott didn’t hesitate. He immediately got up from the table. “I’ve got her stuff in my truck, I’ll go get it.”
He walked out, resolutely ignoring the frantic mewing that followed him out the door. He refused to consider the very likely possibility that Candi would get rid of Alabama after a few sleepless nights. He refused to wonder about Candi’s boyfriend or children or other pets.
Angrily he walked toward the truck. Goddammit, what had possessed him to take on an animal in the first place? He should have left the damn thing to die along Interstate 29 with its littermates. He should have –
“Didn’t think I was gonna catch up to ya,” Logan drawled.
Logan was leaning against the driver’s side door of Scott’s Jag. He was wearing his stupid cowboy hat and his stupid cowboy boots and his stupid sheepskin jacket and an inscrutable expression.
Scott stopped. Suddenly he felt every sleepless moment catch up with him, too.
He said dully, “Why aren’t you in Branson?”
“Just played a hunch.”
“You came all this way for a truck with seventy thousand miles on it?”
“Nah.” Logan patted the Jag possessively. “I figure it’s a fair swap.”
Scott didn’t bother disputing Logan’s arithmetic. “Then what the hell do you want.”
“Vacation’s over, bub. Time to come home.”
People walked in and out of the diner. People drove into the graveled lot and parked. People got into their cars and drove away. People gawked at the lacquered black Jaguar with the New York plates. Scott ignored all of them. He said, “I can’t. I have to find Jean.”
Logan paused. He said finally, “You wanna look for her body?”
“She’s not dead.”
Once again, Logan did not boggle. “What makes ya say that?”
“I can hear her.” Scott tapped the side of his head. “I can hear her. She’s still alive.”
“Can Charles hear her?”
“Charles says I’m hallucinating. He’s wrong.”
Logan studied him. Finally he nodded, slowly. “Yeah, I think he is. You’re hearing someone, all right.”
“You’re hearing someone. But it ain’t Jean.”
“Oh, how the hell would you know.”
“Cuz she wouldn’t do this kinda evil shit to you.”
"You think it’s Jean’s tellin’ ya to go back to Alkali? Place is crawling with soldiers. You go there and you are not ever coming back.” Logan shook his head. “It’s a trap, Cyke. The feds are waitin' for ya. ’N you think it’s Jean helpin’ ’em? You think she’s that kind of a coward? You think she’s that kind of a traitor?”
Scott looked away. Suddenly he sat down on the truck’s front fender. All the adrenaline drained out of him; he felt incredibly tired. He’d spent six months fighting off the well-reasoned arguments thrown at him by Charles and Ororo and Bobby and Hank. All the reasons why Jean could not possibly have survived the collapse of Alkali Dam. Why there could not be even a corpse to retrieve.
But he didn’t know how to counter Logan’s argument.
He said in a small voice, “It sounds like her.”
“It ain’t. And if ya think it is, you never. . . .” Logan shook his head again, impatiently. “Fuck this shit. We are not doin’ this shit anymore. We gotta move on.”
“That’s what you said in New York.”
“I wasn’t talkin’ about Jean.”
Scott looked back, at a loss. Finally Logan sighed and jerked his thumb at the Jag. “Get the fuck in.”
Scott got up. He said, “I left something in the diner.” He started walking away.
Scott turned in time to catch the small brown plastic bottle Logan tossed at him. His prescription bottle.
Scott turned the bottle around in his hands. If he took the medication, he wouldn’t be able to hear. . . whoever it was, anymore. He wouldn’t hear what sounded like Jean’s voice in his head. He wouldn’t dream of her anymore. And dreaming of an angry, accusing Jean, dragging him underwater to drown with her, seemed better than never hearing her again at all.
Logan looked steadily at him.
Scott popped the cap off the bottle and dry-swallowed a pill. He shoved the bottle into a pocket, turned around and climbed the steps to the diner.
Alabama was huddled miserably on the counter and crying fit to break a heart of stone. Candi was excitedly waving the twenty dollar bills and telling her tale to an assortment of co-workers and customers. Scott tapped her on the shoulder.
“I’ll trade you a car for the cat,” he said.
Candi managed to calm herself sufficiently to allow Logan to haul his duffel bag out of the Jaguar. Inside Scott’s shirt Alabama rumbled happily and kneaded his belly with her sharp little claws.
Logan threw his duffel into the bed of the Ford, opened the driver’s side door and climbed in. He stared in shock at the litter on the floorboards. “What the fuck did you do to my truck? I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.”
Scott shrugged. “I suppose I could always set fire to it.”
“Shut up.” Logan cocked his head, sniffed and looked disbelievingly across the bench seat at Scott. “Is that a goddamn cat or do you just naturally stink that bad?”
Scott shrugged again.
“I am not drivin’ all the way to New York with a damn cat and that is final.”
Scott opened the passenger’s side door and started to get out. Logan grabbed him by the upper arm and hauled him back inside the truck. “Fuck you, Summers.”
“If you’re good.”
Logan opened and closed his mouth a few times and settled for stomping viciously on the accelerator. The truck roared out of the parking lot down Loop Road toward the I-15 southbound ramp.
Scott leaned back and drowsily closed his eyes. He wondered when the transmission was finally going to start acting up and how he could make it appear to be Logan’s fault. He tucked one hand up inside his shirt and scratched the kitten’s head.
Sweet home Alabama, he hummed. Where the sky’s always blue.