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After Ace turned the last page of The Multiverse Manifesto, he cocked his head, and with a puzzled look on his strong, chiseled face gazed out the small side window of the speeding big rig. Trees flew past, silent and still. A metal guardrail followed alongside like a metallic shadow. The big rig’s diesel engine clicked and clacked. Its wheels rolled, its tires hummed, rolled and hummed. Ace reflectively scratched his chin.

Vanilla Myers, his bear-sized mitts firmly clutched onto the big round steering wheel like a helicopter parent to a child’s arm, reached up and adjusted his white, sweat-stained trucker cap. He looked in the rearview mirror, monitoring his passenger and said, “Did you finish reading?”

“Yeah, sure did,” Ace replied. His eyes shifted from the window. He blankly stared at the seat back in front of him.

“Well,” Vanilla said, still looking in the rearview mirror, “what’d you think?”

“Think?” Ace said. “I don’t know what to think… Actually, on second thought, I think I need a stiff drink and a hand grenade.”

Every night on Earth, Ace enjoyed several Gunfires – a belly-warming drink of rum and black tea. He could taste the boldness of the tea leaves and the sting of the rum. He wanted one. He needed one. Ace often guzzled the dark drink on Earth to help him make sense of his life. As far as wanting a hand grenade, well, Ace liked to blow stuff up. Blowing stuff up also helped him make sense of his life.

Vanilla Myers reached to the radio and clicked it on.

“I haven’t got any drinks, or, oddly enough, any hand grenades,” Vanilla said. “But I’ve got some rockin’ good tunes, man. 66.6 BBM Country never disappoints.”

Vanilla listened intently. The music from the speakers took shape, a sonic manifestation. A banjo twanged. A cowbell pealed. The sound of a bass guitar boomed to a rhythm like feet shuffling atop wooden planks. A man’s voice sparkled, sorrowful, sad, and singing about the love of his life, before she’d left him, before he’d cried into his bag of pork rinds, and before his dog had ran away and became a feral beast on the mean streets of Main Street. Vanilla Myers amiably nodded his head. He drummed his fingers atop the steering wheel.

“Yep,” he said, “sounds like The Whisker Meats to me. Great band, man! Good thinkin’ music, too. Do your stuff, soldier.”

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Ace closed his eyes and imagined to be a smart man, a really smart man with a Ph.D. in some field of science, perhaps theoretical physics. He thought about time dilation… or, at least, he tried to think about time dilation. The entire concept blew his mind. For every race he’d run on planet Digitoid, according to the manifesto, ten years would pass by on Earth. Ace’s age upon return would remain the same. OK, a bit unusual, he thought, but easy enough to understand. When the manifesto began explaining how the concept actually worked, however – planet Digitoid a negative five on the Burn’s Spectrum of gravity’s hyper linear sequential magnetic polar fields, compared to Earth’s score of plus two, and that each time he found himself behind the wheel of any race truck, at any racetrack, thundering beneath the checkered flag, his truck’s sonar frequency response within the pantheon of polar fields vibrating and creating a complex nanometered reaction within the Programmer’s Galactic video card, ten years passing by on an Interlooper’s Earth Timeline, upon re-entry, and not to mention, the whole issue of Digitarians not adhering to the principle of Time, because, to them, Time was a myth – Ace became incredibly confused.

The Interlooper sitting inside the sleeper cab of the big rig opened his eyes. Ace was a man of his word. His decision to stay on planet Digitoid made long ago, after the previous race. He’d told Dale he’d like nothing more than another chance behind the wheel of the black-and-white race truck. Another chance at finding his lost comrade, Mr. Victory, rescuing him from the paved battleground and returning him to the land of redemption. And so it was.

Ace tucked The Multiverse Manifesto into his breast pocket and stealthily climbed over the center console. He sunk into the big rig’s plush passenger seat as if he were a Hollywood starlet, the seat, like lavish quicksand.

“So,” Vanilla Myers said, “what do ya think, huh? You gonna stay?”

Ace happily slapped his legs, his flesh-covered, bone-supported legs; the legs that now worked just fine. “Private Killroy reporting for duty, sir,” he said. “Where do I enlist?”

Vanilla Myers briefly looked from the road and flashed Ace a smile. “Open up the glove box,” he said. “There’s something waiting for you.”

Ace opened the glove box, but he didn’t see anything save for napkins, more napkins, and more napkins. “There’s nothing in here,” he said.

Shortly after that, Vanilla’s freckled arm and his large hand reached across Ace’s lap, into the glove box. The big rig swayed.

“I know it’s in here somewhere,” Vanilla squawked.

Ace pushed the freckled arm away as if it were contaminated with Ebola. “Concentrate on the road, you idiot,” he shouted, “before you kill us both! Just tell me what I’m supposed to be looking for.”

“It’s a watch,” Vanilla said. The big rig straightened up. The diesel engine kept a clicking and a clacking. “It’s got a gold band. You can’t miss it.”

Napkins fell from the glove box like quietly crashing sheets of snow from a warm roof, empty.

liar-pants-on-fire-1044281“There’s nothing in here,” Ace said.

Vanilla Myers owlishly peered into the empty glove box. “Well I’ll be a Crossover’s uncle,” he said. “It ain’t in there, huh?”

“Of course not. I already told you that. You think I’m a liar?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“You seemed to imply it.”
“Nonsense.”

Vanilla steered the big rig. Ace scooped up the napkins, made a ball of them, and returned them to their tight quarters.

“Why do I need a watch?” Ace inquired. “I thought Time didn’t exist on this planet?”

“It doesn’t, soldier. The watch isn’t for telling Time. The watch is a reminder to you about how many years have passed by on Earth. After every race you complete, it computes your new Timeline. It also scans your wristprint and enters your information into The National Interlooper Database.”

Ace’s heart bumped a little tighter, a little faster. His skin itched. His nostrils flared. Uneasy. He didn’t like the word “Database.” In Ace’s world, a database was only good for one thing: control. The ability for a sinister organization, perhaps a government, to monitor its citizens around the clock, personal freedom and security obliterated, privacy exposed like a naked body.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Ace listlessly. He hoped his uninterested tone of voice would help the situation blow over. “I’ve got a good memory. I believe I’m fully capable of tracking and adding together my ten years after every race.

“Well, if you say so, soldier. But I’ve still got to tell Dale about this. He’s a silver-pinned member of The Utopian Brotherhood For A Better Eternity. I’m not even a member yet.”

Vanilla frowned and pouted like a teen on restriction. Then he pawed at the collar of his shirt.

“It’s gettin’ mighty hot in here, ya think?”
“Actually, I’m quite com—”

Vanilla Myers lowered his window. The white, sweat-stained hat flew from his head like a kite without a string. It landed on Ace’s face. The smell of sawdust and funk smothered him. Ace tossed the mesh trucker hat to the floorboard like an enemy attacker. He stomped, and stomped, and stomped.

Vanilla quickly reached for Ace’s anxious body.

“Whoa, soldier,” he calmly said, as if not to induce any more stress upon the ex-military man. “It’s just a hat, bud. You’re fine. You’re fine. Easy. Take a deep breath… now please, give me back my hat.”

Ace scrunched his brow and pursed his lips. He picked up the hat the way a frightened person would hold the tail of dead mouse.

explosion“Unbelievable,” Ace cawed. “You thought I was having a flashback, didn’t you?”

Vanilla concentrated on the road. “U-uh, no,” he said tentatively. “Of course I didn’t think you were having a flashback. How silly.”

Ace tossed the hat onto Vanilla’s lap. Its lifeless brim seemed to grin back.

“You know what they say about stereotypes, don’t you?”

Vanilla shook his head like indeed he didn’t know what they, whoever they were, did say about stereotypes.

“There’s a little truth in all stereotypes,” Ace said. “But it’s not the whole truth, and the whole truth about me is I don’t have flashbacks. My time in The Gulf War was treacherous. Sometimes scary. And I was injured. But I’m a man. A real man. I don’t hold onto feelings of the past like some kind of wimp.”

Vanilla, confused by Ace’s body language, swallowed hard.

The Interlooper proudly stuck out his chest like a man that’d just won an award. He rapidly blinked his eyes. His hands grew tremulous. Sweat.

Vanilla thought Ace was lying to himself. How could war not change a man? How could seeing innocent folks die, friends standing next to you one day, laughing and cutting up, talking and playing, and then gone the next, living in fear, walking hand in hand with dread, how could all of those things not change a man? The remnants of misery and destruction had to linger within his soul. At least that’s what Vanilla Myers thought as he put the cap back on his head.

“Truth is,” Ace said matter-of-factly, “I just don’t like strange men’s sweaty hats tickling my nose. Got it? Good.”

The big rig continued to motor down the highway. A new song played on the radio. Another sad, blue tune about a lost love; Ace reached to the radio and fitted a muzzle.

“As I was drowning in the God-knows-how-many-years of old, crusty funk that lines the inside of your hat, something perplexed me.”

“Yes?”

“Why do you even wear that pile of soggy trash on your head. I mean, you could afford a new one, right? You work for a professional race team.”

Vanilla reminiscently rubbed the pile of soggy trash on his head.

“You wouldn’t understand, soldier. You haven’t had the surgery. You don’t have the capacity to empathize like I do.”

“Try me,” Ace hooted back.

“Well,” Vanilla said, “This hat used to belong to a dear friend of mine, Cap’n. He was our team’s transport driver for a long, long time. After his terrible accident, I was promoted. And, well, if this hat was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Our society is fair. Critical-Utopian Nationalists are true egalitarians.”

Looking out the windshield, Vanilla Myers pointed to a green roadside sign. “See,” he said.

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The sign said: Speed Limit: 60 – Because Some People Don’t Like Driving Fast!

“It’s quite simple,” Vanilla said. “Some people don’t like the things you like. Some people have different interests. Some people get offended by words, and rightly so. As Digitarians, we empathize with one another, and respect each other’s feelings, everyone’s emotions. We’re equals. Everyone is great! Wonderful! Smart! Talented! Us Digitarians, we have a motto, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Pretty clever, huh?”

Ace irritably shifted in his seat. “Sounds like communism to me,” he proclaimed. “That never works.”

“I don’t think so,” Vanilla chuckled. “The Programmers would never use something with such a boring-sounding name. We’re Digitarians. Critical-Utopian Nationalists… duh.”

Ace wanted to tell Vanilla that all people weren’t equal. He’d seen that first hand in the military. Some men were better sharpshooters than others. Some men could yell, really well. Some men filtered water better than the top pool boys in Beverley Hills – filtering water, an underappreciated, but essential art for desert warfare. Some men, like him, were better at driving Humvees. And some men, well, some men were brainless morons who couldn’t even maintain a straight gig line and keep their shoes tied. But he didn’t say any of that. Instead, he said: “So, if I need a million dollars, but I don’t have the ability or skills or motivation to earn that money, you’re just going to give it to me. Like a magical pot of gold at the end of a mythical rainbow?”

Vanilla’s eyes lit like fireflies at night. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “Now you’re gettin’ it! Of course I’d give you the money. We’re brothers, man.”

Ace slammed his fist into the dash of the big rig.

“That answer is ridiculous!” he shouted. “You didn’t even put an ounce of thought behind it, not even a kernel of reason. This conversation with you has been more exhausting than pushing through an Ironman with two prosthetic legs, and believe me, I know… I need that drink now.”

“Too bad, soldier. The racetrack is right up there. See, without the constant worry of the clock, the bony prickle of Time tapping your shoulder, the constant worry of waste, the dark secret of death timidly ticking, ticking, ticking, knocking you square in the throat, we’re already here. Pretty neat, huh?”

“Whatever.”

Ace slumped in his seat. Sure, he’d admit it if you asked him, without tracking Time, the ride to The Flat Track of The People’s, a journey of great distance, felt like it was over within a matter of minutes. That was nice. But now, a racetrack very much like one he despised on his Earthly iRacing simulator rig, lay ahead: New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Ace slumped a little lower. He wished he’d thought about that before giving Dale his word to race again. But he hadn’t. And he was a man of his word. Or so it goes.

The big-handed man in the driver’s seat reached to the radio. He clicked it back on.

Music:

Ohhh, I miss her, yeahhh I really miss her.
She’s lovely. She’s wonderful.
Ohhh, I miss her, yeahhh I really miss her.
She’s lovely. She’s wonderful. That broad stole my car! (Banjo solo.)

The big rig tootled its horn as it pulled into the racetrack.

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When the team’s hauler came to a complete stop, its air brakes whooshed into the turquoise sky. Ace opened the door and hopped down. Dale was waiting, gold-rimmed glasses atop his beak-like nose, the silver-winged pin on his button-up shirt, sparkling and shimmering like liquid metal.

“So,” Dale said, “did yinz read that little pamphlet I give ya?”

Ace tapped the breast pocket of his shirt. “Yes, sir, I did.”

“So you’ve decided to stay… at least for a bit, I take it?”

“Yes, sir. My mission of victory is not complete. Besides,” Ace said, brushing invisible dirt from his shoulder as if the concept didn’t bother him, “I’m not afraid of a little time dilation.”

Ace wasn’t afraid of time dilation and springing ahead ten years on Earth after each race because he didn’t have any friends back on his home planet. The jiu-jitsu dummies in his basement weren’t very talkative. His parents were dead. And his medical care was atrocious.

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Dale said. He crossed his arms and looked to Ace’s wrists. Dale quizzically scratched his head. “Where’s your—”

Vanilla Myers awkwardly dog-trotted round the back of the transporter. He sounded like a man searching for air. “Dale,” he cried out, reserved anxiety bubbling in his voice, “I couldn’t find no watch. It ain’t in the truck.”

Dale again scratched his head. “Hmmm,” he muttered, “I was damn near sure RJ left it with me before I sent him home… Well, no biggie, I’ll just give The State Hospital a ring later on and get ‘em to send another’un.”

Vanilla let out a breath that stunk of relief. Ace looked at Dale. Dale looked at Vanilla, all three men waiting on another to speak. The silence lifted with Ace saying: “So what now?”

That’s when Dale slapped Ace on the back and said, “What now? Now it’s time to go win a race, son. Get suited up, soldier.”

Vanilla scrambled to the side door of the hauler. He disappeared. Moments later, a muffled, high-pitched noise groaned like a lift gate lowering. As Ace began to walk to the back of the team’s big rig and open up the double glass doors, he turned to look at Dale. “But,” he said, “don’t I get some practice time first? And what about qualifying?”

Dale stuck his hand in his pocket and fished about. He pulled out a straw, its plastic kinked and curled wildly.

“Not this race ya ain’t,” he said. “Hell, sometimes us Digitarians get a little spontaneous and decide to mix things up a bit. It’s all in the name of fairness, though. Nobody’s gettin’ a practice session, son. As for qualifying,” Dale opened his palm and displayed the plastic tube, “we drew straws. And by the looks of it, we’z startin’ tenth.”

Ace incredulously nodded his head. He stepped into the hauler to look for his firesuit. “Loudon,” he mumbled, “I hate Loudon.”

The double glass doors screeched shut.

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From mid-pack, Ace could barely see the pace car.  He could, however, see eager race trucks in front, beside, and out his rearview mirror. They swerved to clean their tires, belched mechanical battle cries, trying to intimidate. Ace flipped down the visor on his helmet and prepared for war.

“Now just remember, son,” Dale said into his headset, “The Flat Track of The People’s is damn near a carbon copy of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The groove is toward the top, she’s flat, mean, and more than welcoming to the rubbin’s racin style of four-wheeled combat… Go git ‘em, son!”

“Green! Green! Green!”

The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevy accelerated, thundering beneath the green flag. Ace grabbed the round ball atop the long, metal stick and threw it forward. Third gear. His race truck shouted and kicked up dust. It snarled at the competition.

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Ace wanted to go git ‘em, but he was trapped on the outside. The truck to his inside sprung ahead. Then another truck, appearing from nowhere, white on its side and red down its middle like a mutant mechanical skunk, dove low; it sprayed Ace’s Chevy with a plume of exhaust smoke. The skunk easily made the pass. Ace fell to 12th.

Two laps later, the on-track action heated up. The trucks in front of Ace slowed, a fender bender. One truck lost rear grip exiting Two. The driver wrestled with his unruly race machine, but his wrangling skills weren’t good enough. Thiago Ferreira slapped the backstretch wall, another truck bumped into him, and then another. Ace had to make a decision: romp on the binders or keep his foot flat and take evasive action. He chose the latter, pushing the action three-wide and tickling the apron as he roared into Turn Three.

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Smoke and spinning race trucks! But that was all in Ace’s rearview. The race remained green… but not for long.

Midway through Turns Three and Four, the red-and-white mutant mechanical skunk struck again. Only this time it’d exchanged its exhaust spray for something more menacing: a pair of fangs and a chrome horn.

Ace held the bottom line. The skunk in the middle, its chrome horn sniffing for opportunity, its fangs growing and dripping venom, searching, seeking blood, finally sunk its teeth into the sheet metal of Ferreira’s left rear quarter panel.

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Ace was oblivious to the mutant mechanical skunk’s reign of terror, but when Ferreira’s truck suddenly snapped loose and bounced off the side of The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevy, he started to ask a few questions.

“What the hell happened?” Ace said. His truck sat sideways at the entrance to pit road.

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“Looks like that fellar had a bit of help,” Dale said. “Short track racin’, I’m afraid. It’s survival of the fittest out there, son. Now get ‘er fired and catch back up to the field. Yella’s out.”

Ace pushed in the clutch. His fingers went to operating switches like an old-timey telephone operator. The beast roared. Ace dropped the clutch and gassed up his black-and-white race truck. It angrily spun round, tire marks etched the pavement, the cry of eight cylinders exploding, up and down, up and down, trailed behind.

As Ace caught the tail end of the field, Dale cued his mic and said: “Bring ‘er to us, son. Four tires and fuel. Four tires and fuel, boys.”

Ace watched the crewmen dance about like powerful ballerinas. He heard the zip of air guns. He felt The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevrolet lift in the air. Then he felt it slam back to the ground. He saw several trucks leave in a blaze of tire smoke, anxiously awaiting his opportunity to squeal from his pit box. Finally, the left side of his race truck whacked the ground. Ace’s truck shouted and spun and lurched ahead. The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevy rolled down pit road and blended onto the racetrack.

Meanwhile, on pit lane, several crew members had already began cleaning their pit box. Sweeping up debris and spraying a solution to make the pavement sticky, more grip. Dale was also busy. He was busy acting like a disgruntled manager of a baseball team.

A race official had waved Dale down from his pit box. Upon climbing down, Dale removed his headset and received bad news. He didn’t take kindly to this news, so, the crew chief of From A Dig Motorsports started to cuss and point at the race official, then he cussed some more and kicked imaginary dirt on the fellow. The race official strolled away. Dale climbed a small ladder and sat back down.

Ace heard Dale’s indignant voice inside his helmet.

nh8

“We’z gettin’ penalized,” he said. “Hell, these blasted idiots haven’t a damn clue what they’re talkin’ ‘bout. Stupid SOBs is just makin’ up rules as we go along! I swear on a Crossover’s tail… Look, son, they hit us with a commitment cone violation. When you spun, half the truck was sittin’ across the pit entrance line, they’z sayin’ you committed to pittin’ and needed to follow through instead of loopin’ the truck round and blasting down the frontstretch. I ain’t never heard of such BS in my life… Gonna have to make a stop and go when we go back green here.”

Ace wanted to choke somebody. He wanted to sneak up behind an insurgent and drive a machete between their ribs. But instead, his Excessive Celebrator Complex flared up. He fist pumped. He cheered. He shouted. He said: “We won! We won! Hoorah, boys. We won!”

“Oboy,” said Dale incredulously. He reproachfully flung his hands into the air.

“Sorry, sir. I forgot what the manifesto said in regards to preventing another excessive celebrating episode. I’ll have to re-read that section.”

“Hell, don’t worry about it, son. This here’s a team sport. I reckon we all gotta shoulder a bit of the blame. I got a little worked up myself there. Fur a minute I’z hotter than a ghost pepper in a Jacuzzi. We’ll bounce back, son. Just make sure you serve our penalty.”

“Ten-four, sir.”

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The green flag unfurled. The field of race trucks induced a palpable wind, the wind sweet with race fuel, gritty with dust and dirt and tiny marbles of used rubber. One lap round, Ace was unable to get to pit road, trapped in the high line, unyielding race trucks to his inside. Another lap… still stuck.

Just before a race official radioed Dale and informed him his race truck was about to stop being scored, Ace found an opening. He stabbed the brakes and worked the clutch, rowing gears, slowing, slowing. The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevy carefully made the lonely journey down pit lane. Stop and go. Bang! The rear tires lit up and made smoke.

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When Ace’s Chevy returned to full song, Dale radioed in and said: “Leader’s a second back. Yinz is the last truck on the lead lap. I need you to fight hard, soldier. We need to stay in front of that SOB and hope for another yella.”

Ace’s eyes sharpened. He imagined a life or death scenario, the leader’s truck strapped with a bomb, his black-and-white race machine the target. His arms steered with perfection. The pedal beneath his right foot modulated with smooth accuracy. He grunted. He never looked in the rearview, only out the windshield, the way, he thought, any championship driver would do.

And for five laps, his efforts proved effective.

But eventually, the inevitable, The Flat Track of The People’s, a venue much like New Hampshire Motor Speedway, began to give him trouble. Ace’s Chevy started to kick sideways off the corners. Loose. The leader of the race, John Gorlinsky, had caught him.

“He ain’t got nothin’ on ya,” Dale said. “Hell, make that damn truck as wide as ya need, son.”

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Ace tried to run the exact same line as the leader, forcing Gorlinsky to the bottom groove in order to make the pass. But, in doing so, he’d also allowed second place runner, Thiago Viera, to close in and join the fight. The trucks behind Ace weren’t in the mood to play games. They were all about business, the business of winning.

Exiting Two, Gorlinsky gave the black-and-white Chevy a shot, square to its back bumper. Ace got loose. He chased his truck up the track, nearly scraping the wall. But his right foot remained cemented. It was enough for Gorlinsky, however, enough to open the door and pull alongside. Ace washed high in Three. Gorlinsky completed the pass. Ace now a lap down. And on the very next lap, entering Turn One, Viera pounced to the inside and shuffled Ace back even farther.

“Hang in there, son. Stay close to ‘em. We’re the first truck a lap down. We’z still got a shot at the Lucky Dog.”

Fortunately, for Ace and his team, they didn’t have to hang in much longer. Two laps later, at the halfway point of the race, Ferreira and Chris Golf2 tangled down the backstretch. The second yellow hankie of the race wrinkled in the wind. Ace was the Lucky Dog. He motored around the pace car and waited for his opportunity to pit. After bolting-on four fresh Goodyear Racing Eagles and nourishing the 650-horsepower race truck with a couple bottles of go-juice, he rejoined the field, scored in fifteenth, back on the lead lap.

“Aight,” Dale said, “we fought hard and now we’ve got another shot at this thing. Pull them belts tight and go fur it, son.”

nh18

The green flag re-emerged. And when Ace romped off Turn Two and down the back straightaway, he noticed that many of the trucks at the back of the pack were mangled and disfigured, their spoilers bent, sheet metal twisted and crude looking. He thought they resembled tanks that’d slipshodded through a minefield.

Although not a minefield, trying to make hay from the back of the pack at The Flat Track of The People’s was just as terrifying: off every corner a truck would shimmy, slow, speed up, shimmy again and come within inches of slapping the wall, invoking mayhem. Ace imagined he had a mouthpiece in. He bit down and started making moves.

After passing Vernon Margheim’s black-and-yellow Winn-Dixie machine on the high side, Ace found the source of the erratic behavior of those around him. A severely damaged race truck several laps off the pace, Xavi Razo, piloting the iRacingTV Toyota Tundra. Razo bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball. One corner in the low line, then to the high groove, slow, fast, unpredictable, his truck on life support, dog tracking round the entire magical one-mile speedway.

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Sooner, rather than later, Ace found himself in the high line, three-wide, the iffy truck of Razo sandwiched in the middle.

“Watch that fellar,” Dale said. “He’s a few laps down, desperate to go… Hell, I don’t know where to, but desperate to go somewhere.”

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Exiting Turn Two, Razo’s truck and The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevrolet had a close encounter of the twisted sheet metal kind, body slamming into one another. Ace kept his truck pointed straight and motored down the backstretch.

nh23

Entering Three, Ace, going against what he thought a championship driver like himself should do, checked his rearview mirror. He didn’t see Razo. But then, suddenly, he felt the backend of his truck get light. No grip. Ace’s truck went sliding, up, up, up and toward the outside wall. His hands reacted. Steering, steering, trying to catch his black-and-white race machine.

nh25

Razo and Ace had had another encounter, this time ending badly for From A Dig Motorsports. Unable to save his race truck from spinning out, and now apparently with a mind of its own, The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevy decided another body slam was in order. Like Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 1000, Ace’s truck pressed tightly against the rippled body of its competitor and fell flat on its metal face, eventually laying lifeless against the white canvas of the inside retaining wall.

Razo’s Tundra limped away.

A truck with a flatbed came and picked up Ace’s truck. The Black Dahlia Murder/Snap-on Chevy finished last.

After the checkered flag fell and Gorlinsky declared the winner, Ace and Vanilla sat quietly inside the big rig, waiting to leave the racetrack. Dale climbed two, shiny, aluminum steps and knocked on the passenger side window. Ace glumly rolled it down.

“Cheer up,” Dale said. “Ya never know what kind of carnage a short track’ll bring on. Shoot, sometimes you’re the bullet, and sometimes you’re the body. We’z the body today, son. But look at ya, yinz is strong. Muscled up like a man without legs that does jiu-jitsu all day in his basement. I’ve got faith in you, kid. I’ve got faith in our race team, too. Next one’s at another mile-and-a-half track. You remember what happened at the last cookie cutter we raced on, don’t you?”

Ace dismissively rolled his eyes.

“Well, lemme tell ya then… We almost won, that’s what happened. Second by only five thousandths of a second! I’ve got a damn good feeling heading into Utopian Motor Speedway. Just you wait and see. Vanilla, take care of ‘em.”

“Absolutely, boss.” Vanilla reached over and shook Ace’s arm like a tyke to his first Baby B Good N Stinky toy rattle. “We gonna have us a grand ole time, ain’t we, soldier?”

Ace did the same thing again with his eyes. Vanilla turned a key. The big rig began a clicking and a clacking.

“One more thing,” Dale said. “Just remember, son, your grace period is over, if you decide to return to Earth, your timeline will have advanced ten years, understand me? As soon as yinz leave I’m gonna call the hospital and get you another watch.”

Dale encouragingly slapped the side of the team’s transporter and stepped down. The big rig tootled its horn and left the racetrack.

Iphone-cell-phone-clipart-free-clipart-images-2Dale found an unclaimed Goodyear, tipped it right side up, and sat down. He pulled out his cellphone and dialed a number. The State Hospital.

Ring…

Ring…

Ring…

“C’mon you bastards pick up the f—”

“Thanks for calling The State Hospital, voted best caregiver, always and forever for both Universes, this is Sheila, how may I help you.”

“Yes, Sheila, my name’s Dale Stanton, Digitarain one zero three two, I need a replacement watch for an Interlooper of mine.”

“What’s his database number, sir. I’ll have to look him up.”

Dale had an incredible memory. He spit out the number like it was his home address. “Interlooper’s number is nine eight seven six two three oh ten, but he’s probably not in—”

“Hold please.”

The music that started to play sounded like a mix between the soundtrack for a naughty movie and Beethoven. Soon enough, Dale began nodding his head in rhythm…

“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t have an Interlooper by that ID number in my database.”

“I know that,” said Dale contemptuously. “I was trying to inform you of that before you so rudely put me on hold. He hasn’t put his watch on yet.”

“Well,” Sheila snapped back, “I don’t believe you. There’s no one by that number in our database, if there was an Interlooper by that number here on planet Digitoid, we’d have him in our system. We’re The State Hospital, we never lose anything. We’re the most competent, well-organized bunch of beings the Universes have ever created. Is there anything else I can help you with today, sir?”

“Yes,” Dale growled, “there is… I need a replacement watch for Interlooper nine eight seven six two three oh ten, Mr. Ace Killroy. Our last Interlooper, Rublix Jenkins must have forgot to turn in his watch before I sent him your way. I don’t have it in my possession to give to our new guy.”bubble-gum-club-penguin-wiki-the-free-editable-encyclopedia-about-qEqhAe-clipart

“Sir,” Sheila said, “where are you calling from?”

“From The Flat Track of The People’s.”

The line went quiet… the sound of gum angrily popping.

“So your one of those, huh?”

“One of what?”

“One of those savages who still believes in winners and losers, an uneducated man who defies our leaders, that’s who.”

“I’m not defying anyone, shoot, this is all I’ve ever known. Racin’ and winnin’ and wreckin’ and wrenchin’, that’s me, baby. And I’m tired’uh talkin’ all polite and what not. Now, look, you wretched swine, I need a replacement gold watch for Interlooper nine eight seven six two three oh ten, Mr. Ace Killroy. Yinz better get on the damn horn and found out what in the Red Hill is goin’ on. I’m just’uh follerin’ orders, yinz hear?”

“Wow… my goodness, sir… is it, uh, is it hot in here or is it just me. My body, uh, my body is vibrating like a Touch O’Matic 5000… I don’t know what’s going on… Uh, I don’t really know how to say this, but, are you single? My, your voice is really something when you talk with passion like that. How old are you? Did I already ask you if you were single, sugar?”

“Holy Hell on a rope,” Dale hooted, “are you kiddin’ me?  Just get me another watch, alright, and like, make it quick, Slick.”

“Well, sir, it will take a few moments to look into this matter further, may I please have your phone number? Do you like candlelight dinners, long walks on the beach, and soaking in the tub with a good book?”

Dale quickly spit out his phone number and hung up. He rose from the Goodyear and walked off into the distance.

Another phone was ringing at The State Hospital, but the conversation that ensued was much shorter, and less awkward. The phone that rang was red, its receiver green, the phone looked like a squared off strawberry that had been dropped into a bucket of clearcoat. Shiny.

“Master Surgeon General Mark Madfoot speaking… uh, I haven’t checked in on him yet, sir… no, I’m not sure if his arm has reversed to carbon fiber yet or not… well, I’ve been busy… OK, yes, I’ll get right on it, sir… Good bye.”

Mark Madfoot stood and put on his red overcoat. He opened his office door and walked.

The pink moon was full and bright. It hovered above planet Digitoid spilling its radiant light across the land like pureed roses. The venetian blinds inside RJ’s room, cracked open. The light, beautifully split into rays, winked in upon him. He tried to move, but his body was wrapped tightly, just the way the nurses had been instructed. He tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t. He thought he heard a light, reedy voice say, “Don’t worry, hun, I’m going to get you out of here.” RJ stopped trying to open his eyes then and drifted away, away to the dream world, to dreams of beautiful colors and Earth, Stacey, and everything else.

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