I hadn’t kept my eyes closed for very long. Maybe about the length of two songs played on the radio. When I opened them, I almost had a heart attack. A police car pulled up to the front of the 7-11 just as Pete had started to exit the convenience store. I scrunched down in my seat, but kept a steady watch on the police car.
A cop got out of the car and said, “Sir? Can I have a second?”
Pete froze, but as he’s probably been surprised by cops before, he maintained his cool. He said, “Of course, officer.”
The cop walked calmly up to Pete and lifted some kind of paper in front of him. The cop said, “Have you seen this girl? It’s important we find her.”
Pete held his chin while he studied the photo. He nodded and pointed back to where we’d just come from. He said, “Yes. I recognize her. I saw her near that old office complex just a couple of blocks from here.”
The cop nodded and said, “Thank you for your assistance.” To someone still in the police car, he said, “Let’s go, Al.”
Pete just stood motionless in front of the 7-11 as the police car quickly pulled away. He then quickly walked over to me and the car. He handed me a bag with a couple of sodas and some beef jerky.
“Take this,” said Pete. “We need to get this puppy filled up and fast.”
“Why did you send them back towards Gary?” I asked through the car window.
As Pete lifted the lever to start the gas flowing, he said, “Gary will keep them busy. He might still get arrested, but he’s very good at deflecting cops’ attention. It’s a talent of his.”
It was probably less than two minutes before the pump finally shut off. It felt like a million years. I kept watching down the street the cops had driven towards. Any moment I expected black helicopters and an armada of police vehicles rushing towards us. Pete remained calm as he replaced the nozzle and got into the car.
As Pete started the car, he said, “It’s midnight, we have a full tank of gas and we’re on a mission from God.”
I grunted and said, “We’re not wearing sunglasses.”
Pete shrugged as he drove the car out of the parking lot. He said, “Nobody’s perfect.”
In a few minutes, we were on a highway heading for Lubbock. There was little traffic out, which I thought was going to make us obvious.
I said, “Shouldn’t we be on a busier highway? We’re going to stick out aren’t we?”
Pete shrugged. He’d been silent since leaving the 7-11. He said, “At this hour, there’s not a lot of traffic anywhere. Gary was going to take the long way down I-20 and then over to Jal, New Mexico and then up to Colorado. Talk about a long drive. But it’s counter intuitive. If anyone is watching, they’ll think you’re heading for Mexico, but then you turn and head north instead. We’ll hit New Mexico at Clovis and then up as it’s faster. Time is no longer a luxury for us.”
I opened one of the cans of soda and took a sip. I closed my eyes after several minutes of watching the white stripes zip past. I felt I couldn’t relax, but it was nice to be able to close my eyes while someone else did the running for me.
I opened one eye slightly and looked over at Pete. His face lit slightly by the instrument panel. His face was an emotionless mask. He hadn’t said much to me since we left the office building. I wonder if he hated me since he’s now putting himself at risk for me. He wasn’t doing it for me, but because his friend Gary had asked him to.
As I watched him drive, I noticed how nice looking Pete was. And that got me thinking again about who I am and who I’m becoming. Since being placed in this body, my brain has been awash with female hormones. I’ve noticed many subtle changes happening to me. My color perception is changing. My thinking is becoming clearer. My emotions are increased.
If I live through all this, I’ll become an adult woman. I’ll only have less than a full four, teen years to adjust to that instead of a lifetime. What does that really mean? By the time I reach twenty years old, I’m sure that almost everything mentally about me will have changed. As a male when I turned twenty, I wanted to take on the world. Notions of getting married and having a family didn’t occur to me until I left the military. How different will being a twenty year old woman be for me? Or thirty? Or becoming a blue-haired old lady wearing too much rouge and kyphosis bending my back?
I felt a slight pang of disappointment in myself considering my combat record. At the moment, all I wanted was to have someone cuddle and hold me and tell me everything was going to be all right. Even if it was a lie.
I set my half consumed soda can into a cup holder in the car’s console and drifted off to sleep.
I awoke with a start as the car jolted. I looked around, suddenly alert. I could see noting but flat farm land all around us.
Pete said, “Sorry about hitting that hole. Didn’t see it in time.” He turned the car towards what appeared to be an abandoned barn and a collapsed farm house.
“Where are we?” I asked, glancing quickly around us.
Pete said, “We’re just east of Clovis. I need to rest and it’s best to not be on the highway in broad daylight. I’ve hidden out in this barn before, so we should be okay. You slept for a very long time, girl. It’s good you’re rested because you have watch while I sleep. It’s going to be a boring afternoon for you. You can listen to the radio if you keep it soft. Feel free to get out of the car. Just don’t leave the barn, okay?”
I nodded and said, “Okay.”
Pete pulled a ball cap down over his eyes, leaned back in the seat, folded his arms and was out like a light.
I left the car radio on as I got out to stretch a bit. Staying in the shadows, I looked out at the farm land surrounding the barn. I saw nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles. I hoped no one had seen or cared if they did, the trail of dust kicked up by our car on the dirt road. That’s when I noticed that the car we had wasn’t the one we left Frisco in. I must have been really out if he could move me to another car and I not wake up. That meant he had to touch me. Hold me. Why would I think about it?
I fiddled with the radio for a while and finally settled on a classic rock station. I sat on the hood of the car enjoying the music as I kept watch for any approaching vehicles. A national news program came on and the first story was about me. I slid off the hood and sat back inside the car to listen.
“…still at large. The runaway was last spotted holding up inside an abandoned office building with known local criminal Gary Treadway. Treadway claims he only gave the girl food and sent her on her way. Local authorities doubt his story as Treadway is a registered sex offender with underage girls. He’s being questioned by the FBI. The authorities ask if anyone knows the whereabouts of this runaway, please contact the FBI. In other stories, singer Michelle Grayson denies reports that she’s now pregnant by her boyfriend Tommy…”
I stopped listening and got out of the car. They’ve arrested Gary. Another person I’ve put in danger. My mind flooded with self-doubts. How many are going to fall to protect me? Is my life worth all these people? I don’t know if anyone’s actually died for me, but Nancy, that girl in Houston, and now Gary and if we’re caught, then Pete have all been jeopardized. I felt a heavy burden on my shoulders. Yes, I want to live, but how can I with all these ghosts in my head? Maybe I should have declined the offer of a brain transplant.
I didn’t know what to think about Gary being a sex offender. They could be trumped up charges like the ones against me. Gary seemed nice, but then he is a con-man. Maybe it’s true and he’s trying to turn his life around. Or maybe I just wasn’t there long enough. I shuddered.
“Hey!” called Pete from the car. “Hop in. We should probably go. Now that it’s gotten dark, we should pick up a different car in Clovis. The police might be looking for this one by now.”
I had been watching the day grow into dusk from a bench inside the barn. I had been doing a lot of soul-searching and despite having all afternoon, I was still no closer to knowing who I was and how I should fit in. Pete started the engine as I walked back to the car.
Pete kept the lights off on the car as he carefully drove down the dirt road back to the highway. When the traffic was clear, he turned on the lights and sped off down the highway.
As we headed towards Clovis, I said, “When was somebody going to tell me Gary was a child sex offender?”
Pete wrinkled his brown and not taking his eyes off the road said, “What? What are you talking about?”
I needlessly pointed at the car’s radio and said, “On the news. They mentioned arresting Gary. They said he was a registered sex offender for underage sex.”
Pete smirked and said, “Oh, that. It’s nothing.”
Glaring at Pete, I said, “It’s not nothing! Was he actually interested in saving me from the feds or was I potentially another notch on his belt, so to speak?”
Gesturing with one hand, Pete said, “It’s nothing. Really. I’m sure you being a little hottie help, but he genuinely wanted to keep you out of the hands of the cops. The sex offender thing..well that was about four years ago; I think he was eighteen at the time. He got caught with a seventeen year old girl who had told Gary she was also eighteen. When her daddy found them, she got scared and cried rape. The thing is, that wasn’t her first time with him. But she was still underage. So he got some jail time and has to register as a sex offender. Of course, he hides out all the time, so he’s always in trouble for not keeping up with his registration.”
“You’re saying I was safe with him?” I said.
Pete shrugged and said, “You were safe from being molested, yes.” He looked over at a parking lot that was partially dark. He said, “Some cars over there look promising. Let’s get a new ride.”
Pete found a carport attached to an empty home a couple of blocks from the parking lot he’d spotted. We ditched the car in the carport and ran back to the lot. Fifteen minutes later, we were in a new car, gassed up and heading out of Clovis New Mexico for Las Vegas…New Mexico. From there we’d take a round about way to Chama near the Colorado border. From there we’d make our run to Pueblo Colorado.
Trying to remember a few times I’d been to Colorado for vacations, I said, “We cross I-25. Why not just go straight up to Pueblo?”
“It’s a major highway,” said Pete. “Probably a lot of cops looking for stolen cars with a runaway in it. Yeah, going through Pagosa Springs and then to Salida and then over to Pueblo is a long way out of the way, but I’m hoping they won’t be looking for us along that route.”
As I turned to rest my head on the car seat and closed my eyes, I said, “I sure hope you’re right.”
I sat on the ground just inside the doorway of yet another falling down barn a mile or so off the highway. I could sit there and stare at the mountains all day. And I did. We had yet another car and were hold up just east of Salida, Colorado. It was the final leg of our trip to Pueblo where Pete would finally be allowed to wash his hands of me.
On the radio, the news reported that I was spotted down in Big Bend National Park, riding a burro into Boquillas, Mexico. Another report had me spotted near El Paso. Pete was convinced that Gary had asked a couple of the girls from the “nest” to make themselves look like me to throw the authorities off our trail. I thought that was too much cloak and dagger stuff and was just an indication of anxiety of my pursuers.
As the day turned towards dusk, Pete and I were both sitting in the car listening to the radio. Pete looked over at me and said, “You never really gave a clear answer as to why the government is chasing you. They claim you’re a runaway, but runaways seldom have a national dragnet out for them. Even the military is looking for you. Why? Are you a security threat? It just blows my mind that there are so many resources being thrown at you.”
Looking at the radio, I said, “Can you keep a secret?”
Pete laughed and said, “That’s basically what I do, Steph.”
I said, “I pretty much escaped a government lab. They were going to kill me.”
Pete looked over at me and said, “Whoa. What? Government lab? They want to kill you? Are you contagious? Am I endangering everyone by driving you around?” He shifted away from me in his seat.
I frowned and said, “Don’t be stupid. I’m not contagious. This is going to sound like science fiction, but they performed a brain transplant on me.”
Pete’s eyes widened. He said, “That’s bullshit! Look, if you don’t want to tell me, just say so. Don’t make up shit.”
“I’m not!” I exclaimed. I then told him the whole story about a brain dead girl and my accident. And how I wasn’t supposed to live. And how word leaked out about it and that almost the entire world was clamoring for the technology, requesting new bodies and other things. They had managed to put the quietus on the story, but there was still one loose end. Me.
Wrinkling his brow, Pete said, “Holy shit, man. That’s incredible. You mean you’re really a guy?”
I frowned and said, “No. I’m a girl. The body is all girl. My brain came from my male body, but honestly, by now, the only male left in my head are my memories. And even those I’m not sure about any more.”
Pete turned the car engine on and we rolled slowly to the highway. Pete said, “That’s an incredible story. No wonder they’re after you. You’re living proof they’re lying about the experiment’s failure. We have got to get you to a safe place.”
As soon as we hit the highway to Pueblo, Pete ran the car up to the speed limit.
Pete said, “Keep your fingers crossed. We’re in the home stretch.”
Frowning I said, “Even if we make it to that safe house, I still won’t be really safe.”
Pete glanced over at me for a moment and said, “We’re gonna try.”
I just stared out the windshield for a few minutes in silence and just listened to the radio. Not taking my eyes from the highway I said, “I know I haven’t said anything yet. But I really do appreciate you helping me. I really wish I could expect to have a future. One that doesn’t include running and hiding. That shrink who was helping me at the hospital, Nancy Davis. She wanted me to go back to school. Not to learn, but to get socialization so I’d grow into being a confident woman. I can’t really imagine life as a woman right now. Shit, I don’t even know if I’ll see another sunrise.”
Pete shrugged and said, “Nobody’s guaranteed tomorrow.”
I looked over at Pete and said, “True, but you have a reasonable expectation of a tomorrow. I have people hunting me down to kill me.”
Pete reached over and squeezed my hand and said, “Hopefully once you’re out of the country you can relax.”
I spent a couple of minutes watching Pete drive. Finally I said, “So, what’s in Pete’s future? Are you going to spend the rest of your life hauling fugitives across the country?”
Pete laughed and said, “I was just telling Gary last week that I’ll help him out for one more year. Then I’ll join the Army, see some of the world, hopefully not get shot and then when I get out go to college on their scholarship.”
I smiled at Pete and said, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Computer Science, I hope,” said Pete. “I’m good with computers.”
We went past a highway sign that told us that Pueblo was ten miles away. We rode in silence for another few minutes.
Pete suddenly looked intently into the rearview mirror. He shouted, “Ah shit!”
Alarmed, I said, “What?” I turned around and looked out the rear window. A highway patrol car was gaining on us, service lights flashing. I said, “Where did that asshole come from?” I felt a rush of adrenaline, but I had nowhere to run.
The police car pulled in close behind us and flashed his headlights. Pete grimaced as he pulled the car to the shoulder. He said, “I was going the speed limit! I had the cruise control set.”
When we stopped, two state police officers got out of the car. One approached the driver’s side of the car. The other was talking on the radio. Pete rolled down his window as the officer stood outside his door.
“May I see your license, sir?” said the officer.
Pete said, “I think I left it in my other pants, officer.”
Unamused, the officer said, “Exit the car, please sir. Place your hands on the hood.”
Pete hesitated a moment. He looked royally pissed. Finally, Pete opened the car door slowly and stepped out.
I started to open my door, but the officer said, “Miss, remain in the car, please.”
After Pete had placed his hands on the hood of the car, the officer said, “The reason we pulled you over, sir is that this car was reported stolen from Pagosa Springs this morning. Do you care to explain how you happen to be driving a stolen vehicle without any form of ID?”
Pete shrugged and said, “Stolen? For reals? Man, you can’t trust anyone these days. I’ll need to talk to that used car salesman.”
The officer said, “We’re going to have to take you in, sir.” He started to approach Pete. The other officer was approaching my door.
As the officer pulled out a pair of handcuffs, the other state police officer looked at me and froze. He suddenly drew his Glock and pointed it at me. He shouted, “Get out of the car, miss! Slowly. Hands behind your head.”
The other officer slapped the cuffs on Pete and said, “What’s going on over there, Joe?”
To me, Joe said, “Turn around. Hands behind your back.” He quickly cuffed my wrists. He said, “It’s her! The FBI’s most wanted. We’re going to be on the news tonight!”
Dr. Nancy Davis looked up from her desktop computer in response from the knock on her door. The door opened and in stepped Dr. Frank Gordon. Dr. Davis frowned and said, “I’m kinda busy right now Frank.”
Dr. Gordon stepped into Nancy’s office anyway and shut the door behind him. “We need to talk.”
Looking at her computer monitor, Dr. Davis said, “I have nothing to say to you, Frank.”
Looking down at the floor, Frank said, “I know you’re upset that I voted to terminate the project. You have to agree that it would have opened a huge can of worms. I never dreamed they would move to terminate her life.”
Nancy looked up and said, “I still have nothing to say to you Frank. Please leave.”
Frank Gordon stepped closer to Nancy’s desk. In a quiet voice he said, “I have an idea on how to save Stephanie.”
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