Roadside Attraction, modified flickr photo, Mark Holloway
The car pulled over suddenly, veering onto the shoulder just ahead of us and breaking hard, it’s tail lights winking excitedly. Cosima baulked instinctively, not liking anything abrupt or out of the ordinary. I looked on with interest, wondering if the driver had some kind of problem. Perhaps he was lost, maybe he had spilled coffee in his lap, or a warning light had blinked.
His head bobbed as he wrestled himself out of his seat belt, then the driver’s door sprang open, his body swiveled, and a fashionable leather shoe popped out, making contact with the pavement. An expensively attired business-type, his grey suit flapping casually in the slipstream of the passing traffic, stepped onto the shoulder and walked round to the trunk of the car. He raked us with cool grey eyes, but without looking at us directly. Instead, he opened the trunk and retrieved a plastic container, which he pried open, tossing the lid into the boot.
Alarm bells sounded. I have to confess my experiences as a principal had resulted in a slight prejudice against suave business types. I had come to think of the upper echelon, ‘highly motivated’ dads as a sort of predator in our midst that captured its quarry in invisible nets of marketing and boardroom logic, then ratcheted the drugged prey inexorably in. The science of their lust and greed irritated me, even as I smiled and chatted with them on the playground or in the gym after the annual Christmas performance. I always felt they were trying to figure me and were slightly smug at their ability to do so.
That learned aversion got swept aside like old cobwebs. But now Cosima was curious in a patently Pavlovian way about what might be inside the man’s plastic pail. Curiousity kills the rooster, I thought, but could not restrain Cosima’s attraction to the bait. To him the plastic container was symbolic of something akin to Cornucopia. He was instantly mesmerized in the manner of a TV addict trained by closeups of sexy women, cheesy hamburgers, and powerful cars.
Cosima did not share my fear of well-dressed men with goodies in hand. In fact, his experiences in Revoucnav had taught him to trust them. So in the clash of impulses in our conjoined brain, hunger overruled good sense.
The driver fixed us with a penetrating stare. It wasn’t the casual glance of a man who had turned from some mundane task and found you in his field of vision; it was a laser glare, emanating from a dangerous machine. “Run!” That’s what instinct told me. Fly over the barrier and down to the river bank that had forced us onto the highway in the first place. Even if we landed in the water, we would have been better off, I thought. Cosima, I was sure, could have swum at least as well as he could fly.
Cosima overruled me, holding steady on a course I felt certain would end badly. The bucket contained feed, which our benefactor sprinkled on the pavement between us and him. Warily Cosima approached and pecked at a few kernels. It was high grade stuff, and after the first taste he went for another bit, and another after that.
“That’s it,” our benefactor encouraged, leaning casually against the rear, passenger-side fender, his legs crossed. “There’s plenty more. What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere anyways?”
“Yes,” he said. “I thought so. Hopelessly lost and about to get squashed. This is no place for a chicken.”
He pushed himself forward, startling Cosima for a moment, then sprinkled a few more grains between us as he backed down the side of the car. Against my increasingly strident advice, Cosima followed, pecking hungrily at the offerings. The man casually opened the rear door and stood there waiting.
As a guest I had absolutely no control over Cosima’s musculature. I was a thought to him, a voice, a hallucination. As much as I wanted to turn and flee, he ignored me, refusing to translate my panic into electric pulses traversing synapses, contracting sinews, pulling ligaments, and making limbs roll in joints. He pecked away, straying closer and closer to the opened door.
“That’s it,” our benefactor coaxed. “I’ll take you to safety.”
There was a tone to the man’s voice Cosima wasn’t picking up on – a tone of malicious superiority immensely gratified. Stupidly, naively, Cosima followed the trail of food right up to the door frame, clucking as he continued to gobble down specks of grain. He did glance at his suited benefactor frequently, out of natural caution excited by my intensifying terror. And in those snatches I pieced together the man’s dilemma. He wanted to get Cosima into the car, but didn’t want to muss his back seat or the floor with food offerings.
“In you get,” he suggested.
For Cosima, though, there was no incentive. Why would he enter the enclosed space of this man’s car? What possible motive could there be to take such a risk? He continued to jab at the pavement until there was nothing left to jab at. The businessman then placed the plastic bucket in the floor well of his car and stood back. Cosima clucked suspiciously and looked askance at the proffered pot of feed. He tilted his head, calculating the risk-benefit quotient of the situation.
“No!” I raved. “Don’t!”
He bawked, taking a step back from the trap.
But before he could translate fear into action the businessman grabbed us, his strong hands pinioning Cosima’s wings. Cosima squawked and tried pecking at our captor, but he couldn’t twist his head far enough to get in a good stab. We were thrust inside the car, then against the seat in the foot well. Our captor held us pinned there with one hand, the pressure of his grip making it impossible for us to breathe.
Then we were in the dark. Cosima instantly stilled, as his nervous system shut down.
“It’s only a blanket,” I said. “Get us out of here!”
But he gave up utterly, as if he’d been cut off from all means of conscious willing with the blotting out of the light.
“That ought to keep you,” the man said. He had placed something heavy on the bottom of the blanket and against the hump of the drive shaft enclosure, perhaps his briefcase. The door slammed shut. I heard the scuffle of his feet, the slam of the trunk, then the squeak of leather as he settled into the driver’s seat once more. His door slammed and the car moved off smoothly, powerfully, accelerating back onto the highway.
“Shit!” I thought.
But at least we were headed toward Aveneg at a speed one-hundred times faster than Cosima could have achieved on his chicken legs and wings.