Cruise Control Benjamin C. Kinney
“Why the hell would I want to become a car?” I flicked the pamphlet at my son’s face, but it fluttered down to the bleach-white sheet, against the metal bed rail.
Carlos said peaceably, “You hate this nursing home.”
“Brain in a box isn’t my idea of leaving.” I scoffed, or tried to, and a cough yanked my ribs. I sniffed dry oxygen from my cannula, one shallow sip after another, until the pain dulled.
“I’m not here to argue with you, Pop. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.” His palms out, like a coward before a bully.
“I wish you were here to argue. Better that than killing me off. You think I can’t get the nurses to read me some fine print?” I gestured at the pamphlet. “Memory loss!”
“Pop, please.” He kept his voice gentle. “They rejuvenate your brain. It’s the only way to make a driver; you learn radar and wheels, like a kid learning hands. There’s no damage. Only change.”
“You don’t want me alive. Don’t tell me you’re grateful, what a good father I was. Pack of lies, right there.”
He gave me a pitying look, like he was the lawyer and I was begging him to enter a guilty plea.
Hell with that. “You want an inheritance, is that it? I saw what they pay if you drive for five years.”
Carlos hunched, a hedgehog showing his spines. “God damn, Pop. You’re willing to literally die to piss me off.”
“Whatever it takes,” I muttered.
He twisted his mouth, shoved back his chair, and stormed out of the room.
Maybe next week he’d come ready to fight on his own, not with a handful of pamphlets.
Outside the window, the garden was empty despite the late-spring morning. Fewer residents every season. Past years, the garden had a row of bright flowers under the window, little traffic lights of red and yellow. This spring, nothing. Only the tired old boxwood hedge, green and boring.
Too many things going in the wrong direction. I thumbed a destination into the Senior Ride app and called for a wheelchair transfer.
* * *
I was the only passenger, but I drove my chair into the space right behind the driver’s cube.
A synthesized voice said, “Good morning, sir. I see you’re Jaime Garza, going to Norwest Bank, correct?”
“Got it in one.” Not that I came out for banking. I peered at the driver, a locked black cube where a chair should’ve been. The app listed her name. “You’re Breanna?”
“That’s right, sir. How can I help you?” The van drove down the access road, quieter than ever. Felt like just last year I’d gotten used to the hum of electric engines, the half-empty roads. Now they’d taken away the click of turn signals.
“I wanted to know what it’s like to be, you know. Your line of work.”
“Wonderful job, sir,” she said, merging with the highway traffic. “Eight hours on the road, then the evening in VR. No chores, no small talk. I mean, no offense.”
I huffed a laugh. I thought I’d get phonebot speech scripts. “Bet the VR’s good. How’s the streaming selection in there?”
“There’s lots of options, but I don’t really watch. I have trouble following that stuff nowadays.”
I wrapped my arms around my chest to ward off a rising cough. “Sounds awful,” I croaked. “All that Wi-Fi, and you can’t use it?”
“Nah, VR’s for more than streaming. My favorite is driving the Aïr Massif, in Niger. Big bare mountains around you, shrubs and desert spread out below.”
“That’s it? You spend your downtime driving too? Jeez. I hope your kids call at least.”
“Oh, right. We talk sometimes.” Lights flickered on the dashboard, and Breanna led us down the off-ramp. “I don’t understand them like I used to.”
“Kids a disappointment, huh? Ain’t that always the way.”
Her voice grew cold. “That’s a very personal question, Mr. Garza.”
“It’s a rhetorical question, that’s what it is.” I rolled my eyes. “You don’t have to answer, and you sure don’t have to whine about it.”
She braked hard, and the chair straps dug against my chest. “Your stop. Thank you for using Senior Ride.”
* * *
I parked my chair in the lobby to watch folks come and go. One young man said hello, and I trapped him in a conversation about sarcoidosis until he squirmed and fled.
When my mother got to this age, doctors were her social life. Too old for cures, but she had nowhere else to go but the same dozen offices, over and over.
And Carlos came back every week, baring his skin, knowing I’d find a way under it.
The Senior Ride app said the closest van was “out of service.” Pack of lies. I hadn’t meant to piss Breanna off, but hell. It’s what I do best.
* * *
There was a sunset, somewhere, but my window faced the wrong direction.
I called Carlos. He picked up on the eighth ring.
“Pop.” He glared at me through the video screen, his spines already up. Finally armored like I’d wanted, and he wore it like a pair of handcuffs.
“I’m in for the car thing. One condition.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “You serious?”
“If I ever make money, it goes to charity. Not to you. You still want me to do this?”
He huffed and grumbled about the paperwork, but he didn’t say no.
Some hope for him after all, under the cowardice and spines I’d given him.
A cough rattled up from my chest. I let it loose, my ribs spasming until they ached. Who would I be, without lungs? Someone different. Not a person at all.
Breanna seemed happy as a car. For all I knew, she’d been a tyrant before. Maybe her children were better off this way, without a mother looking over their shoulder, slapping them into line, hunting for bare skin.
Might not be so bad to drive away.
Previously published in Fireside Fiction, July 2021. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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