Everyone laughed, even Freddie. Martin barely smiled, though it was still a bigger hint that he was enjoying our company than anything I’d seen in a long time. I glanced at Jess. Although glanced may be a bad word. I looked at her at couldn’t take my eyes away. She’d done her hair in a thick braid that she threw over her right shoulder. The way she laughed melted my heart. There was a supernatural quality to it, as if her laughter was somehow a purer form from anyone else’s. I wondered if it was obvious to everyone that I always looked at her like that when she laughed, and that made my face turn red.
“Alright, before we go,” Freddie said as he reached into the back pocket of his dark jeans. The smoky image of a Persian cat’s face on his black t-shirt seemed to move along with him. The DVD in his hand gleamed in the sunlight. “There’s something we need to discuss. So, according to our dear Martin here, this thing is fucking dangerous, right?”
“Well, it’s not exactly dangerous on its own,” Martin said calmly.
“Well, obviously, it’s not like it’s got razor blades attached to it,” Jess rolled her large gray eyes.
“But those people want it,” Martin continued. “And they won’t stop at doing us some serious harm.”
“I’ve noticed,” I entered the conversation. “But who exactly are they, Martin? You really never did elaborate on any of this. You just came in and said ‘we have to go to New Mexico’ and that’s in. Don’t you think you owe us even a bit of explanation? Like who are those people? What’s on the disc?”
“I don’t know, okay?” Martin started to lose his composure again, but took a deep breath and was calm and collected again. His face had gone from chalk white to beet red, the back to white again in an instant. “I got told where I have to deliver the disc and that other people will pursue me because of it, and nothing else.”
“And you felt the need to drag us all into this,” Brandi added.
“I didn’t intend to do that,” Martin said. “I really thought that I’d given you crosswords. It was an honest mistake.”
“Whatever the case,” Freddie started in a slightly raised tone. “Those guys now have a fake disc, that you somehow made to look like the real deal, and we have the real disc, along with another copy. I don’t think it’s safe for just one person to hold these discs, so I propose we split them between two people and change every day.”
“Great idea,” I said.
“Awesome. Here you go then,” Freddie grinned as he handed me the original DVD. I felt faint for a second.
“No, wait!” I gasped. “I didn’t mean-“
“You’ll do fine, Leo,” Freddie reassured me. “It’s only for one day. And I’m pretty sure most of us will agree that you’re one of the more reliable people here.” He sent Martin a meaningful glance as he said that sentence.
“So that leaves me with the other disc then?” Martin asked.
“Not so fast,” Freddie waved his finger at him and outstretched his palm. “I think we all agree here that you still have some trust you need to win back after all this.”
“He does have a point,” Jess nodded. “You can take one of the other shifts, but I think someone else should hold on to it now.”
“We should draw straws,” Ian added.
Martin sent Mia a helpless glance, but she only shrugged. “Don’t look at me. Freddie’s absolutely right.”
“Fine, be my guest,” Martin sighed as he placed his golden DVD in Freddie’s hand. “This one’s empty anyway.”
“Yeah, of course. Ian, you got those straws ready?”
“You’ve got it!” I didn’t even notice when Ian managed to get to the car and come back, but here he was, with a bundle of straws in his hand. I counted them – thank goodness, there were only five, meaning no straw for Martin and me. I don’t think I could’ve handled the responsibility of possessing two discs. “Ladies first.”
One by one, the straws were drawn. Jess was the first, drawing a straw of a regular length. She seemed a tad disappointed. Mia was next, then Brandi, Freddie, and finally Ian was left with the last straw. In the end, it was Brandi that got the shortest straw.
“So I win Martin’s porn stash?” Brandi said as Freddie handed her the disc.
“Martin’s what now?” Mia raised an eyebrow as Freddie, Jess and I snorted in an attempt to contain our laughter.
“What is with you guys?” Ian said as he stared at Freddie in confusion. Martin looked just as confused.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “We’ll tell you later. So, isn’t it high time we got going? I thought those guys were going to chase us down.”
“Oh, right!” Ian exclaimed with one hand on his forehead and ran up to the car. He sat at the driver’s seat and started to fiddle with some device. “Martin, where exactly are we going? I have to set the course.”
“Helix, New Mexico,” Martin said to him as he approached the car. “Though I’m not sure your GPS will find it. It’s a really small town.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Ian grinned. “Freddie’s got an eye for such gizmos. I’m pretty sure this baby can-“ a beeping sound came from the car. “And here it is! Groovy! But we’ve got a long road ahead of us, guys,” Ian turned to us. “So we better get moving.” And with that he started the engine.
As we were getting into the car, Jess raised a question. “New Mexico’s pretty far away. Why can’t we just go by plane?”
“Good question,” I said to her, sending a smile in her direction, but she didn’t notice.
“I’m guessing that travelling by car give us more room to improvise should anything go wrong,” Brandi said.
“Those guys could be screening flights,” Freddie added as he fastened his seatbelt at the front seat. “They find out we take a specific flight and get to the place we land faster than us, and we’re fucked. Am I on the right track here, Martin?” A crooked smirk appeared on his face.
“I’d assumed it was obvious,” Martin replied as he sat down and started fiddling around with his iPhone.
“What the hell is this?” Jess had tried to sit next to me, but she hadn’t noticed that space was occupied by some irregular-shaped object wrapped around in black cloth.
“Oh, that’s my trumpet,” Ian said as he turned around to face her.
“Why’re you taking your trumpet?” Mia asked.
“I always take my trumpet.” With that, he turned to face the steering wheel again. Freddie turned around to face Mia, shook his head, and whispered: “Don’t ask.”
We rode along beaches, forests and rivers, and yet none of us could fully enjoy it. I really admired Ian for being able to stay awake and drive after such an eventful night. One by one, we would drift away to sleep. Martin fell asleep first, his arms crossed across his chest. Mia was next, laying her head on his shoulder. I don’t know when Brandi fell asleep. She’d been looking out the window for the longest time and then she suddenly closed her eyes. I couldn’t be certain she was really asleep at this point. Jess was still reading a book when I fell asleep. I felt like no time had passed at all when Freddie shook me awake, but one glance at the clock was enough for me to know that more than three hours had passed.
“Sorry to wake you, Leo,” Freddie whispered. I could barely make out his bearded face through the blur. I rubbed my eyes and yawned. I felt terrible, but at least I could see him clearly now. He was wearing his glasses, lighter and sleeker than Ian’s thick spectacles, but no less black and rectangular. There was a laptop opened on his knees.
“It’s okay,” I whispered back as I yawned again. “Did something happen?”
“Nah, everything’s fine. Everyone’s still fast asleep. Can you give me your disc for a second?”
“Why? Are we changing shifts already?”
“No, it’s nothing like that.” He glanced around the car again. “I wanted to check what’s on it. And I didn’t really want to do it with Martin around. Awake.”
“What happened to Martin’s our friend, huh?” I teased.
“Well, he is,” Freddie whispered. “But he’s also a huge fuckup who’s hiding things from us.”
“You don’t think he’s telling the truth about the disc?”
“I think may be telling us only parts of it. I’ll try to confront him about it later, but you know how difficult he’s been lately.”
“Tell me about it.” I scratched my head and dug out the disc from my pocket. “Here you go.”
“Thanks. I’ll need to check Brandi’s disc later when we stop at a motel or something.”
“I think I’m gonna need to make a stop soon,” Ian yawned. “I think I need to use the bathroom.”
“Hey, next stop you make, we’re switching.” Freddie said in his low growl he always used when he was being assertive. “It’s a wonder you’ve managed to take us so far without crashing the car yet. Don’t force yourself. Find the nearest gas station.”
“Thanks,” Ian said and adjusted himself in his seat. He seemed to get a little kick out of that conversation.
“Okay, so the system can’t even recognize the disc,” Freddie said, more to himself than anyone else, but I still leaned in to take a look at the monitor. Only then did I notice Jess’ arm on my shoulder. I felt my cheeks turn hot, but did my best not to panic and move around in such a way that it wouldn’t fall off.
“S-so what now?” I asked Freddie.
“I’ll try to boot from the disc on startup,” he said as he rebooted the computer and entered the proper commands. The screed suddenly flashed and lines of letters and numbers appeared.
“Easy there, Morpheus,” Ian snickered.
“Well, fuck me backwards,” Freddie whispered as he tried to type something, but the image was static.
“What’s going on? Is that some kind of code?” I asked. I could feel Jess’s hand squeeze my shoulder.
“Not a code that I’m aware of.” The image did look weird, that’s for sure. The numbers seemed clumped together in squares with the letters protruding from them in all directions, forming lines that vaguely resembled existing words, but scrambled.
“It almost looks like it’s in English,” I commented.
“Yeah, but what does that tell us?”
For a second we all sat there in silence, unable to come up with a sensible answer. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, Ian yawned and said: “Doesn't it kind of look like crosswords puzzle?”