'Family Picnic,' a Short Story by Robert Coover
A family takes a picnic in their new smart car. They are attacked by helicopters and have other troubles.
To celebrate their new car, Dad offers to drive the family into the country for a picnic. The prairie flowers will be in bloom! he exclaims. Mom prepares a basket of fried chicken, potato salad, and cherry pie. Sis remembers the mosquito spray. Gran remembers the gin.
Buddy says the car is really cool. It has all the latest innovations and an awesome spaceship dashboard. It all but drives itself, Dad says. It even smells new, says Mom.
Sis says she loves the color, which is a shiny magenta with a bronze sheen in the sun. No one else has one like it. That's why I chose it, her father says.
The neighbor and his wife come over to admire the new car. WE'RE GOING ON A PICNIC! Gran shouts as though the neighbors were as hard of hearing as she is.
Buddy shows them how the augmented reality on the windshield works. It's great at night! You can see everything a mile around you! Oh, I'd never learn how to use that! the neighbor says, shaking his head ruefully. Really, Buddy says, quoting the online manual that he has called up on his smartphone, this car is a complete advanced mobile technology platform! The neighbor's wife giggles abashedly at that. Stop showing off, Buddy, Sis says.
THIS NEWFANGLED GADGETRY REMINDS ME OF WHEN GIRDLES TOOK OVER FROM CORSETS! Gran yells. No one else remembers that.
They all pile into the new car with Gran in the middle of the backseat to keep Sis and Buddy separated. There are five whirs and clicks as the seatbelts fasten themselves around them. They wave goodbye to the neighbors, standing in the sunlit driveway with melancholic smiles on their soft round faces, and they're off, Buddy making vroom! vroom! noises.
The highway, more or less empty at first, starts filling up and soon they find themselves caught up in bumper-to-bumper traffic. All the lanes are jammed. There must be an accident up ahead, Dad says. It's a nice day, says Mom, everyone's out for a drive. Mom is not looking on the bright side. She's arguing with Dad.
The car behind bumps them impatiently in the rear. Dad unbuckles and steps out to complain about this and his door touches the door of the muddy pickup beside them. The owner jumps out and demands money, pointing at his back fender, not the door. He's a hairy tattooed fellow in a sleeveless undershirt with a can of beer in his fist. Dad apologizes, but politely refuses, observing that no damage has been done. The guy asks again, Dad says no, and the guy rears back and kicks a dent in their new car with his steel-toed boot. We're even, he says, and blesses himself with a volcanic belch.
Dad examines the dent. It saddens him, but it's nothing that can't be fixed. The traffic has moved forward a couple of feet, so Dad gets back in the driver's seat and pulls ahead.
Are you going to let yourself be bullied by that meathead? Buddy asks. Blessed are the meek, says Sis, quoting a technical manual of another age. They hit the jackpot if they can hang in to the end. Games aren't like that anymore, Buddy says disdainfully.
The guy behind continues to bang into them and honk his horn. Maybe we should turn back, Mom says. It's impossible, Dad says. Just look around.
ONE THING GRAMPS ALWAYS SAYS, Gran yells, IF YOU CAN'T WALK, FLY. Gramps has been dead for more than ten years, but she still speaks of him in the present tense. Mom says to make sure the doors are locked so the old bird can't get out and start flapping her wings. Gran has gone completely off the rails, Buddy says.
No, I'm the smart one, it's the rest of you who are nuts, says Gran, screwing the cap off the gin bottle.
I didn't think you could hear me.
WHAT? she shouts, and tips the bottle up. I said—oh, never mind, you loony old bat.
That's no way to speak to your mother's mother, Buddy, Dad says. Oh, let him, says Mom. She is a loony old bat.
But I don't mind your craziness, Gran says with a little burp. It relieves my constipation.
What is she saying? Dad asks. That we give her the shits, says Mom grimly. Why is Gran saying all these stupid things, Dad?
She's getting old, son. Be kind.
Why is Buddy asking all these stupid questions, Dad? Sis asks—Ow! You just knocked Gran's glasses off, Buddy!
I SEE BETTER WITHOUT 'EM! Gran shouts good-naturedly and takes another generous swig.
Sis retrieves the glasses for Gran and sets them back on her nose. It's getting awfully hot in here, Sis says.
There's a cabin cooling system, Dad says. But I don't know how to turn it on. I think you just talk to it, Buddy says. Air-conditioning, please, Dad says. Nothing happens, except that the cross-traffic alert sensors start beeping wildly.
WHOOPEE! cries Gran, waving the gin bottle about dangerously. WHEREZA MUNCHIES?
Probably you're not supposed to say, "Please," Buddy says.
Sis shouts she's got used to the new car now and she wants to go home, and Buddy, reaching over the front seat to turn off the beeping sensors, says it would be better to go where all these people emptied out from. We have a picnic table in our backyard, Mom says. What's wrong with it?
Stop complaining, guys, we're having fun in our new car, Dad says, smiling a happy smile. I'm not having any fun, Dad, Sis says. Well, we're not there yet, honey.
Why is the trunk open? asks Mom, looking over her shoulder.
Oh no. That guy behind us must have hit us hard enough to pop it, Dad says. I'll go close it. When he returns, ducking the beer can thrown playfully by the pickup driver, the happy smile is gone. The picnic basket has been stolen, he says. And also the tool kit and the spare wheel.
Maybe we should look for a motel, Mom suggests. YAY! LET'S GO WATCH A DIRTY MOVIE! shouts Gran. Dad snorts scornfully.
They inch forward again. There's supposed to be a special feature using satellite technology that allows you to see what's on the road ahead, Dad says. It's like a crystal ball. But I don't know where the on-switch is. Buddy shows him and how to work it. Hah! It seems there's some kind of border up ahead, Dad says, pointing to the image appearing on the dashboard screen.
A border to what? Mom asks.
I don't know. But it looks like an international one. There are a lot of flags and uniformed guys with guns.
Cool, says Buddy.
What's an international border doing out here on the prairie? Mom asks. IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD! shouts Gran cheerfully.
Everything has stopped. People are out of their cars, conversing, fighting, taking photos, shouting, kissing. The midday sun is hot and clothes are coming off. A couple of people are dancing on a car roof in their underwear. Buddy remarks on the amazing sight, grabbing images on his smartphone. Gran wants to take her clothes off, too, but she can't do that without getting out of the car, and Sis won't open the door. Spare us, please, Gran, she says. There are a few gunshots and sirens, but a safe distance away.
Dad turns off the motor, unbuckles, and squeezes out of the car. I'll see if anyone knows what's going on, he says. He spotted that blonde over there in the marigold convertible, Mom says. The one falling out of her matching tank top. We may be here awhile.
Gran tips the bottle up: HAIR O' THE DUGS! she shouts.
Mom is right. Time passes. Dad is nowhere to be seen. Gran falls asleep and begins to snore as loudly as she talks.
Sis texts a friend, who texts back. Lisa's getting married, Sis reports. That's nice, says Mom bitterly. No, it isn't. Lisa's only 12, like me. Old maid, Buddy says, his thumbs tapping at his screen like little bird beaks.
The traffic meanwhile has moved forward a couple of feet and the people behind them are honking. You should keep up with the others, Buddy says. If this is such a smart car, Mom says sullenly, it can damn well drive itself. Buddy unbuckles and crawls into the driver's seat, takes it out of gear, and, one hand on the hand brake, lets the guy behind them bump them forward. I'm dying of thirst, Sis says.
After a while, Dad and the blonde appear at the car window. Dad's shirttails are out. Her car has overheated, he says amiably. They have brought pretzels and sodas for everybody. Also a cherry pie. I baked it myself! says the blonde. Isn't that amazing! Dad says.
The pie gets passed around and ends up in Mom's lap. It looks like the one she bought this morning in the supermarket. But all pies look alike to her, so what does she know?
When Sis asks, the blonde says, I don't know where we are! Isn't it just fantastic? Buddy takes a surreptitious photo of the blonde's bosom.
Well, Dad says jovially. What'll we do now? I'd just love to drive your gorgeous new car, the blonde says.
Dad gives her the keys and opens the door for her. Mom presses against the passenger door and looks away. The brats in the next car are sticking their tongues out at her. Maybe she should throw the pie at them.
Buddy crawls into the back again, brushing against the blonde and her bosom. He rolls his eyes, bobs his brows. You're not funny, Buddy, Sis says. Buddy makes an offensive noise, as his seatbelt whirs and clicks.
The blonde has her head down with the motor running, trying to figure out where the brake is, and she smashes into the car ahead. Dad's in trouble again. Oh, I'm sorry, says the blonde with a little giggle. Out pops the other car's driver in a red-faced rage, and Dad backs away a step.
The crash has awakened Gran. WHERE AM I? she yells. Sis retrieves the spectacles and sets them on Gran's nose again. We're still stuck in traffic, Gran, Sis says. You haven't missed a thing.
The blonde gets out and goes to apologize to the driver of the other car. He nods and she crawls into his backseat with him. She winks at Dad and blows him a kiss. Mom gets rid of the pie.
THESE PRETZELS TASTE LIKE TEN-YEAR-OLD DOG POOP! Gran shouts. Have you eaten ten-year-old dog poop, Gran? Buddy asks in astonishment.
Dad returns to the driver's seat and sits in the pie. He jumps up just as the seatbelt is whirring and clicking, and the dashboard warning lights start flashing like a pinball machine.
Traffic starts to move again around them, but they're stuck now behind the vehicle they've hit. There's a lot of honking and fender crunches as cars try to squeeze around them. The dashboard is making binging and bonging noises to go with the flashing lights. Can't you turn that damned thing off? Mom shouts. Dad fumbles with the buttons and dials on the instrumentation panel and sets off a wailing alarm.
I have to find a bathroom, Sis says, and she steps out of the car and disappears.
Gran mugs back at the brats in the next car. The littlest one starts to cry. The father comes over and says the old lady has frightened his child, but Dad can't hear him because of the noise his dashboard is making. In exasperation, the father breaks off an outside rearview mirror and holds it up to Gran. She blows a kiss to her reflection and bobs about to the rhythm of the bings and bongs. PARTY TIME! she yells. The man throws the mirror down in disgust, stomps on it a few times, and returns to his car.
Finally, the blonde emerges from the car in front, carrying her shorts, blows another kiss at Dad, and trots off, Dad watching her bounce away. Somehow that turns off the bells and flashing dashboard lights, or else Dad in his excitement has bumped something useful with his knee. The radio comes on by itself, playing golden oldies. The one playing now is "Never Too Old," and Dad hums along, to Mom's disgust. The driver of the other car, pulling up his shorts, gets back in his front seat and starts up and they creep forward again until the border crossing comes into view.
They are not alone. There are acres of cars gleaming in the blazing sun. At least half of them are shiny magenta with a bronze sheen. PRAIRIE FLOWERS! hoots Gran. All these cars look just like ours, says Mom, Sis will never find her way back. She won't be missed, says Buddy.
There are men in uniform milling about. Do you think they're going to ask for our passports? Mom asks. Don't be silly, dear, Dad says.
A customs officer appears at their window and asks for their passports. Mom grunts smugly.
Dad explains to the officer that they were only going on a country picnic, they hadn't planned on crossing any international borders. The officer snaps the door open, hauls Dad out, shoves him face-first against the car, reaches into his pocket for his wallet. He dumps the driver's license and all the insurance and credit cards onto the highway, takes a fistful of money out, and shakes the bills angrily in Dad's face. You can have them, Dad whispers meekly, if you'll only—
This offer enrages the officer and he whips out his semiautomatic pistol and puts it to Dad's head. Whoa, says Dad.
HEY, CUTIE PIE! shouts Gran, waving her bottle. HOW'S YER OLE TOMATA? The officer hesitates, squints, looks around, then holsters the gun and accepts the bottle. He tips it up for a long guzzle and hands it back, winking at Gran and saying something in a foreign language.
Thanks, Gran, Dad says, which is probably more or less what the customs officer has said, and he gathers up the things spilled from his wallet. He starts to crawl back into the driver's seat, but the officer slams him face-first against the car again, rips his pie-stained pants and shorts down. He has a plastic spoon in his hand.
A senior officer arrives and dismisses the officer searching Dad, ordering him to take the spoon out immediately. The junior officer protests, and the senior officer cuffs him imperiously with the back of his hand, then lifts his assault rifle and repeats his order. Spoon and junior officer are quickly gone. I saw your ring, the senior officer whispers to Dad in a foreign accent, and shows him his own identical one. He and Dad exchange a secret handshake and Dad pulls his pants up.
The senior officer blows his whistle and orders the other cars to squeeze aside enough to let Dad through, and gradually, with only a few minor dings, they are brought to the head of the queue.
But where's Sis? Mom asks. She'll catch up, Dad says. We don't want to miss this wonderful opportunity! Sis just texted me that she has been kidnapped by terrorists, Buddy says. Mom gasps and Buddy tells her not to worry, Sis has a lot in common with terrorists.
As they approach the border, people see that Dad enjoys a favored status and they leave their cars and crowd into the backseat around Gran and Buddy, scrunching down at their feet to hide from border control, pleading to be taken across with them. A burly mustachioed guy punches his way in and takes hold of the ankles of a pregnant woman at Gran's feet to yank her out. Gran kicks him in the teeth, sending him hurtling back out the door. GOAL! Gran hollers. She's having a great time.
On the radio, the golden oldies give way to a news bulletin about the invention of artificial water as a means of keeping the world going a little longer, followed by a weather and traffic report: sunshine and high temperatures. Traffic normal. Have a nice day. The music resumes: a church choir singing apocalyptic religious songs.
Sis texts Buddy that the guerrilla leader is a real hunk, they may get married. He reads this text aloud and Mom starts to cry. Sis writes, If Lisa can do it, I can do it, too—I'm almost 13!
The officer with the secret society ring returns, bringing other security personnel, and they arrest the backseat stowaways. The young woman on the floor is going into labor, so the security personnel leave her there. As the stowaways are led away, Gran jumps out and tries to join them. THOSE CRAZY PEOPLE HAVE KIDNAPPED ME! she shouts. Is this one yours? the officer asks. Dad nods, and the security personnel pick her up and return her to the back seat. RAPE! Gran whoops gleefully.
On the floor in the back, the baby's glistening head is showing. Buddy, turning pale, videos it emerging. I didn't realize this was how it worked, he gasps. If Sis were here, she'd be laughing. In and around her grunts and yelps, the woman on the floor says she'll give Buddy her email address so he can send her the video. I'll post it online, he wheezes.
The swinging church music on the radio is interrupted for a special announcement about the world's overpopulation. I think we're being tracked, Buddy says, and the radio switches itself off.
The senior customs officer returns with 12-hour visas for everyone, including one for Sis, wherever she is. The officer says he's sorry, it was the best he could do. Dad expresses his fraternal appreciation. But we'll take this one with us, the officer says, collaring Buddy. Mom, at the edge of hysteria, protests, but is politely ignored.
The new mother-in-progress snatches the extra visa. For my baby, she grunts, puffing her cheeks out. Then she screams, crumpling the visa in her sweaty fist, and the baby oozes out. IT'S A BOY! Gran shouts and bites off the navel string. She lifts the newborn by his ankles and swats him to make him cry, then baptizes him upside down with a sprinkle of gin. NO, THAT'S ALL YOU GET! she shouts at the screaming baby, capping the bottle, and offers the placenta to the new mother. Save it! gasps the mother. I want to cook it first! I have the recipe!
Isn't that cannibalism? Mom cries, her voice rising.
Well, technically, Dad says, or starts to say, when they are rocked by a powerful explosion. What was that? Mom screams. It's probably just the augmented reality, Dad says calmly, something happening on our windshield that we can't see because of the sunlight. With sound effects? Shock waves? Mom is still screaming. It's a very smart car, Dad reminds her. I want to go home! Mom wails at the top of her voice.
Haw! Me, too, lady, mumbles a red-nosed drunk in a billed cap, leaning his big head into Mom's window. She's so startled, she sets her seatbelt binging and bonging again. Help! Mom cries. Ain' this my car? the drunk asks. Looks like it! He is dressed in lavender-and-green-checked pants, pink polo shirt, and tangerine-colored golf cap. It was followin' me, but it musta got lost.
The special feature gizmo on the dashboard showing what lies ahead has gone ominously dark. Perhaps they've lost reception. The wail of sirens returns, louder than ever, either from outside the car or inside the dashboard. Are those gunshots? Mom screams.
Whoo, I gotta siddown a min so's not to fall over, the drunk growls, collapsing into the backseat beside Gran. The new mother, propped against the far door where Buddy was sitting, is nursing her baby. Nice tits, the drunk says blurrily. In his unfocused state, it's not certain whose he's referring to, so, just in case, Gran shouts: TEN CENTS A LICK!
Haw! Too cheap! exclaims the drunk. He drops a fistful of bills and a golf ball in Gran's lap, then leans back and commences to snore. Gran holds the drunk's whiskey bottle up against the light. There's more left in his bottle than in hers, so she swaps with him.
They are bumped again from behind. That same car has somehow snuck along behind them. The driver leans on his horn and bangs into them harder than before, the trunk pops open and a man leaps out, glancing frantically in all directions. There is a rattle of gunfire and the man writhes and crumples.
Oh no! That was my husband! cries the woman with the baby. We just got married—and I'm already a widow!
Interesting, says Dad.
The young mother deposits her baby in Gran's lap and jumps out to check on the man who has been shot, as sirens rise and fall. She kneels down and listens to his heart, shakes her head sadly. Tears running down her cheeks, she hurries around to the other side of the car. The drunk is still snoring, so she kisses her baby goodbye, asks Gran to take good care of him, heaves the drunk over her shoulder, grabs up the gin bottle, and staggers away, the dashboard binging and bonging louder than ever.
The drunk's billed cap has fallen on the baby in Gran's lap. He seems to be trying to eat it. Gran takes it away from him and sets it down over her own ears, and the baby starts to cry again.
There is a narrow gap between two cars ahead. Dad maneuvers carefully into the opening, but it is too tight. The car behind rams them and, with a metallic shriek, they scrape through to the other side. It's passport control! shouts Dad exultantly. We've made it!
GO TEAM! Gran shouts from under the bill of her cap.
But at the crossing point they are stopped yet again. It's the same junior customs officer as before with the same plastic spoon, but now he's a colonel with a chestful of brightly colored medals. Through a translator, he informs them that there has been a change of regime, and the old one has been deleted. Which may or may not be a mistranslation.
Mom gasps, thinking of Buddy. Gran tips her cap at the colonel and he acknowledges her with a sober wink. Dad is arrested for gross disrespect toward a customs official, for attempted bribery, which here seems to be a capital offense, and for breaching border etiquette. The colonel drags him out of the car and he is marched away.
They're at the border, they have only to cross over, but Mom, having so suddenly lost husband, daughter, and son, is too distraught to drive. The blonde in the marigold tank top appears out of nowhere and jumps into the driver's seat. She holds up a crumpled 12-hour visa as the seatbelt whirs and clicks around her. I found it blowing along on the ground, she says. Isn't that amazing? She sees the baby Gran is holding. I recognize him! she exclaims. He's famous on social media! You're so lucky!
Gran says she doesn't feel lucky. HE JUST LET GO IN MY LAP!
Babies are such great fun! the blonde exclaims, maneuvering the car toward the border crossing. Here, she says, unbuckling and stripping off her tank top as the seatbelt warning bell pings. Swaddle him in this!
Before they can cross to safety, the colonel returns to confiscate their visas and impound the car, informing them through his translator that they are all under arrest as accomplices to Dad's capital crimes. We're never going to make it! Mom wails. The baby is also wailing. The colonel, annoyed, points at him and barks something harsh.
Gran tries to hand the kid off to the colonel. HE'LL GO QUIETLY! she shouts, but he is not quiet at all.
The colonel ignores her, his attention elsewhere. The topless blonde is smiling up at him from the driver's seat, licking her upper lip slowly with the tip of her tongue and gesturing suggestively with an index finger. She puts that finger in her mouth, steps out of the car, reaches for the colonel's belt with her other hand. The translator yells at her to stop, such behavior is strictly forbidden, but the colonel swats the translator away and allows the blonde to do whatever she wants to do. As his groans augment and his uniform trousers slump to his knees, Buddy appears with a security team to arrest him and, still groaning, he is hauled away. Buddy turns off the dashboard noises, but he can't turn off the baby.
Mom is so excited to see Buddy again, she is giggling and crying at the same time. She jumps out of the car and runs to hug him, but he pushes her away. That's kid stuff, Mom. I'm an important person now. She is hurt, but she is also proud of him. Buddy's only ten and, though the sleeves and pantlegs of his uniform are a few inches too long, her son is already fulfilling his glorious destiny.
Gran wets a corner of the tank top with whiskey and gives it to the baby to chew on.
Pity about Dad, Buddy says. We've brought you his possessions. One of the security guards hands her Dad's clothing, fingernail clipper, shoestrings, empty wallet, even one of his summer sweaters and some pajama pants that he wasn't wearing, or didn't seem to be.
Oh no! Mom gasps, handkerchief at her mouth. Then, has he—? Have they—? Buddy shrugs.
Mom is weeping. But how did you—?
They needed a tech consultant, Buddy explains. They gave me unrestricted access to their entire local system, and I downloaded it onto my phone to have everything more at hand. What I did first was organize the arrest of that dingbat who was always bumping us from behind. He's in a lot of trouble. It's too bad, though, about the officer who was Dad's friend. It was strictly against the rules to help us like that. Nothing I could do. His access code has been terminally scrambled.
I just love little guys in uniform, purrs the blonde.
But do you remember that tattooed ape in the pickup who kicked our car? I found out his license had expired and now he's locked up. I was hoping they might execute him so I could watch, but he only got six years. Buddy's phone rings. He listens. Ah...! No, wait! They just made him a border cop. We'll be working together.
When Mom asks, Buddy says that Sis texted to announce that she and her lover had just blown up the nuclear power plant. I think we heard that, says Mom. Sis said it was very romantic. Is she married? Mom asks anxiously. I don't think so, Buddy says, or at least not to just one of them. Mom starts to cry again. So does the baby, more vehemently than Mom. GRAMPS ALWAYS SAYS THAT BABIES ARE GOOD THINGS TO HAVE IN A PINCH! Gran hollers. Probably that's what she's doing to him.
Buddy introduces Mom to the security guards. They smile warmly at her. Mom stops crying. She dabs her eyes with the handkerchief. She finds she is getting used to the idea of being a widow. She feels more attractive somehow and understands better why Dad was always chasing them. It is almost an obligation. She is not yet adjusted to the sudden departure of her children, but she assumes the healing will only be a matter of time. She'll join a crisis support group, maybe meet a nice man there who has had similar trying experiences. She returns to her seat in the car, dreaming of a better future. Maybe Sis will have a baby, she thinks, and I can be a grandmother. Has to be better than being a mother. She notices that the security guards are all ogling the blonde's breasts and wonders if she should bare her own. She looks down at them. No, probably not.
Buddy stamps their visas. He says they'd better leave while they can, things keep changing here at the border. Can't you come with us, Buddy? I've got to get back, Mom. They've arrested those people who took their clothes off and danced on their cars, and I've been assigned to take their pictures for the court record. It's important for my career. Career! You're only ten years old, Buddy! You can never start too early, Mom.
Dad turns up unexpectedly in an orange prison jumpsuit and laceless shoes. There was a guard who was helpful, he explains somewhat breathlessly. Male or female? Mom asks. Dad doesn't say, he only asks Buddy to stamp his visa. Quickly, son! They're after me! Mom had become accustomed to being a widow. She's not sure she can get used to being a wife again.
Those coveralls are so cute! the blonde says, slapping Dad's behind affectionately. Then she leans down and gives Buddy a big hug. My hero! she says. Police sirens are approaching.
HEY, BLONDIE! Gran yells, peering out at her from under the bill of her cap. HERE'S YOUR SHIRT BACK! There's a sucking and popping noise as the blonde pushes Buddy's face away. Gran hands the swaddled baby to her through the car window as the sirens draw near, then she closes the window before the blonde can hand it back. The baby immediately stops bawling and nuzzles where Buddy was nuzzling. For the first time, the blonde looks unsure of herself. Well, I don't know..., she says. THEY'RE GREAT FUN! Gran yells through the closed window, as the sirens draw near, then she falls back in a drunken sprawl, cackling softly.
Dad's back in the driver's seat—whirr! click!—and they're crossing the border at last, just as border security vehicles swing up, sirens wailing urgently, tires screeching. Nick of time! Dad cries out, laughing, and Gran laughs along with him, though more wildly.
There's a kind of whooshing bump—FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS! Gran shouts—and the temperature drops and the sky darkens and they are all alone on an empty highway. Dad turns on the windshield wipers, turns them off, turns on the headlamps. Hah! he says triumphantly.
Why is it so dark out? Mom asks.
Probably a different time zone, Dad says with a shrug. He is happy to be behind the wheel of his new car and rolling freely down a highway, though it is probably too late for a picnic and the car has somewhat lost its newness.
A different time zone! Oh no! If it's later over here, our visas may already be expired!
Dad wants to say, Don't be silly, dear, but the last time he said that he ended up on death row, so instead he asks if Buddy brought her his clothes.
Yes, but I only kept a few souvenirs, like your white shirt and your pajama bottoms.
I CAN'T SEE! Gran shouts drunkenly. TURN UP THE RADIO!
We'll stop at a filling station or a restaurant and I'll change, Dad says. But nothing is open. Everything is dark. He pulls up finally in front of a closed tourist information office, jumps out of the car, unbuttons the prison jumpsuit, and is just stepping out of it in the moonlight when Gran, shouting FORE, throws her golf ball crashing through the tourist office window, setting off a loud ringing alarm. Gran doffs her cap as to a cheering gallery. Distantly, coming their way: more police sirens. Dad's back in his prison jumpsuit and they're on the road again.
I wish I knew where we are, whimpers Mom as they race along, Dad watching the rearview mirrors nervously. That empty feeling she has when looking up at the stars on a clear night is what Mom's feeling now. Cosmic bafflement her psychologist called it, providing her a prescription that makes it and everything else go away for a while, but she left the pills at home.
The special satellite feature on the dashboard is working again, but it seems to be stuck back at the border, where it's still hot and sunny. They can see Buddy there. He appears to be arresting the blonde with the baby. Or she is arresting him. Or somebody else is arresting them both. It might be that pickup truck driver who kicked their car.
It's lit up like day! Mom exclaims. Well, over there, it is day, says Dad.
The blonde is changing the baby on the lid of a large waste bin. Is the pickup driver trying to kick Buddy? The baby? The blonde throws the dirty tank top in his face. Buddy has a gun! Or else it's his smartphone—
But now there are suddenly a million cars on the screen, all packed together and gleaming in the sunlight! It's the traffic jam before the border! Dad exclaims. Instead of seeing ahead, we're seeing behind! Something's wrong! He needs Buddy.
Hello, are you there, Dad? a voice asks.
Hah! Just thinking about you, son!
Buddy! Mom cries. Where are you?
That little screen next to the one you've been watching is a video phone, the voice says. It's so dark over here, Buddy! Mom wails.
Probably a different time zone, Mom. Now, turn on your interior lights, Dad, and I'll show you how to get the video phone going. Also I'll see you better with the lights on.
Dad knows where the interior lights switch is, it's exactly where it was in the old car. He pulls over onto the shoulder and flicks it on, feeling astute. What next, son? he asks gravely. Buddy leads him through the steps. No, no, Dad! The one on the right! When the webcam finally comes on, there he is!
Buddy! Are you alright? Mom asks fearfully. What did that awful man in the dirty undershirt do to you?
Nothing, Mom. The lady I'm with took care of him. She's really great!
Took care of him?
She's cool with firearms, Mom. But how did you see all that?
WHO IS THAT? Gran shouts drunkenly from the backseat. IS THAT GRAMPS?
The special satellite tracking feature is working backward, Buddy, says Dad. Right now it's showing the pileup behind that lady's stalled convertible.
Someone must have hacked into you and is playing games, Buddy says. YAY! LET'S PLAY GAMES! bellows Gran. Or it may be one of those bumps the car got.
Maybe it would help if I could start up the augmented reality on the windshield, Dad says.
Sure. Buddy tells him how to do that. It's not like the dashboard feature, Dad. It only shows what's around you that you can't see because of the dark, things like road signs, billboards, roadkill—
Oh yes, I see now. We just passed a corn silo.
Gran is leaning forward between the seats, squinting at the windshield. CHANGE THE CHANNEL! she shouts. THIS MOVIE IS CRAP!
Actually, with the full moon out, I can see most of those things anyway, Dad says, but now I can read the signs. We're passing one now. It says danger! and there's a silhouette of a helicopter. What can that mean?
I'm not sure, Dad, but I think—
Look out! Mom screams.
Suddenly they are driving through thousands of swarming low-flying helicopters. They rise and fall, hover, fly sideways and backwards, shoot flares, back up, spring forward, dip, dart off again, lift ships, drop radio transmission towers, lose their rotor blades and roll over, fire missiles, crash into one another. Crashing is what they do best. There's one coming straight at them, just a foot off the ground—it lifts just enough to whack their roof and explode behind them. I wish you were here to see this, Buddy! Dad shouts.
And then, just as suddenly, they've driven through the swarm and the helicopters are gone and it's dark and still again.
Amazing! says Dad, borrowing from Buddy. It was, you know, cool!
YO! Gran shouts, lying asprawl in the backseat, only one eye open. MORE!
It's just too much! Mom sobs. I don't ever want to leave my house again!
I heard from Sis, Mom. She told me all about her jungle adventure.
Jungle? Out here?
She said her guerrilla lover had a fast jet and they flew there. But they crashed.
Oh no! Mom is weeping.
Buddy, you're upsetting your mother. You're upsetting me!
Don't worry, they didn't crash hard. The plane was totaled, but they were able to walk away.
Only, then they got captured by cannibals.
Stop! This is terrible!
No, it's alright. They escaped and made it through the jungle back to civilization. But then the guerrilla dropped her for an 11-year-old, who Sis said was cute but stupid and was still wearing braces. Sis said it was the worst thing that ever happened to her in her whole life.
She said she realized for the first time how very old she was. But now she has a new boyfriend. Older guy, retired espionage agent. He promised to help her get even with that rebel smart alec who dumped her.
How much older?
There's something lying on the road ahead, Buddy!
Don't stop, Dad! Run over it if you can.
It's a person! says Dad, screeching to a stop.
I know, Dad, but—
The guy in the road leaps to his feet and points an assault rifle at Dad. He is wearing camouflage shirt and pants, a gunbelt, and a bright-green bandanna around his head.
I told you, says Buddy.
The man announces himself as a liberator and crawls into the backseat with Gran, keeping his rifle at Dad's head. Gran is snoring again, clutching her whiskey bottle to her chest.
You should be more careful, Dad says. Without my augmented-reality feature to see you by, I might have run over you!
I'm wired with explosives, you'd only have blown yourself up.
Maybe, but that wouldn't have done you much good either.
Game of life, the liberator says with a shrug. Anyway, it was part of our planning. Everybody has AR nowadays. It's been standard on all the new models for years now. You did just what we expected you to do. But what's with the prison kit? You been in the slammer?
In prison? Well, yes, but I was completely—
And now you're on the run! Hey, maybe we can use you. Ever done any suicide bombing?
No, but I have a daughter who knows your leader, Dad says with a hint of pride.
I'm the leader and I don't know your daughter. She must be getting screwed by a rival faction.
Mom gasps. Why can't we just go home? she pleads. I hate this place!
Keep driving! barks the liberator. Leave the highway at the next off-ramp!
You're on our screen, dude, says Buddy.
What? Who said that? the liberator screams.
Dad points to the video phone. That's our son. He's with the authorities.
You're being tracked, Buddy says. If you don't change your coordinates immediately, you'll be targeted.
The liberator shoots the video phone. Take that, copper! he yells, blasting away with shot after shot, as Mom shrieks in alarm.
The previous warning remains in effect, says Buddy's disembodied voice. There's a drone on the way to take you out, buster. You have less than 60 seconds.
Fuck you, copper! I got all these hostages, including your old lady and your old man. He bats their heads with the barrel of his rifle. Dad yelps. You gonna kill everybody?
No, that won't be necessary.
Hey, are you a girl, scumbag? You sound like a little girl.
You're going to make me very angry, says Buddy's voice, rising in pitch. He does sound a little like a girl, Mom thinks, even in her terror. You have 30 seconds. Less.
La La! Mama's little baby! the liberator sings out in mocking falsetto. You gonna hit me with your rattle, you hairless twat? He laughs a snarling laugh, then leans over and drops his head in Gran's sprawled lap, as though to take a nap there. Gran snoozes on.
Get him out of the car! Buddy commands. If he's wired up with explosives like he said he was, he might go off!
Dad brakes, jumps out, gingerly lifts the liberator off Gran's lap, and deposits him in the road, jumps back in. What happened? he cries.
I flew a drone the size of a mosquito into his ear, Buddy says. It was a lot of fun. Now hurry! Get as far away as you can!
As Dad guns it down the highway, the still night is rent with a massive detonation, cratering the highway behind them and spiderwebbing their unbreakable rear window. Little girl! Buddy's voice mutters sourly. The creep!
Look at the screen on the dashboard! Mom gasps. It's our neighborhood! And there's our house!
The special satellite feature has reached back to where they started. A large moving van is parked at the sunlit curb and men are filling it up with all their belongings. Their neighbors are standing in the driveway with plump smiles on their sad round faces, directing the movers. There's a FOR SALE sign in the neighbors' window. They're ransacking our house! Dad exclaims. We have to get back!
What have I been telling you? Mom says with a derisive sniff.
They spy a food-and-fuel island ahead that is still lit up. We can fill up the tank, Dad says, maybe find some peanuts. But all my money's gone, my cards, too, so we'll have to steal everything.
There's plenty of money in Gran's lap, Mom says, reaching around for it. When we get there, we can call for help!
Who do you plan on calling? Dad asks contemptuously as they swing onto the off-ramp. We don't know anyone over here. They may all be crooks!
Wait a minute! cries Buddy's voice. The police? suggests Mom. Dad grunts. Look at me. I'm a fugitive, remember? Stop! Stop! Buddy is shouting. What were you saying, Buddy? War zone! Go back!
But too late. Everything is blowing up around them. Overhead, bombers and cargo planes, fired upon by booming antiaircraft batteries, are flying through searchlight beams and exploding shells, dropping bombs and parachutists. Let go of the wheel, Dad! Buddy shouts, his urgency making him sound more like a little girl than ever. I'll drive you out of this! On the ground, heavy artillery is shelling the tanks and armored cars rolling through the ruins of the filling stations and restaurants. And keep your foot off the brake, Dad! Sorry, son. They are surrounded by waves of troops attacking one another with grenade and rocket launchers, flamethrowers, submachine guns, missiles. Fighter jets strafe the battling troops, water bursts from bombed mains, and balls of fire roll into the air from oil deposits. The car bounces across blasted parking lots, races past exploding gas pumps, dodges the tumbling debris and the low-flying jets, then drops down into a ditch, weaves through a thick forest, splashes across a river, climbs a bank, wheels spinning in the mud, and lands finally on a darkened highway. Gran is still snoring with a happy smile on her face.
Where are we? Dad gasps, blinking.
Uh oh. More changes happening here at the border, folks! Gotta go! Take over the wheel, Dad! Just keep going straight ahead!
Wait, Buddy! Mom begs tearily. Don't leave us out here!
All that's left on the bullet-riddled video phone is a staticky rattle. Dad turns it off and starts up the engine, noticing how silent the night is.
The moonlit road back is eerily empty. No other cars or lights. Mom, rigid with fear, is certain they will all be stopped at the border because of their expired visas. Dad is still in his prison coveralls. They will arrest him and execute him again. She feels terribly alone.
There's a hitchhiker up ahead. Don't stop! Mom screams.
No, look! says Dad. It's Sis! He pulls over and she slides in, Gran making room with a sleepy snort and uncapping the whiskey bottle again.
Sis leans forward between the seats and kisses Mom on the cheek. You alright, Mom? No! she bawls. Have you been in jail, Dad?
A moment of darkness, Dad says mysteriously.
I had to wear one of those orange jumpsuits until my husband's friends flew a helicopter into the prison I was in and lifted me out. They're very comfortable. I wonder if they sell them at the mall.
You were married! Mom gasps.
Well, sort of. Until the enemy came and took the guy away to be shot, or whatever. With me, they only wanted to have a party.
Good grief! Are you pregnant?
They pass the closed tourist office with the broken window on the other side of the road. There are police cars over there, their blue lights slowly wheeling, but it's deathly silent and there is no one to be seen. It's like someone has turned off the sound system, Sis observes. Mom, still weeping softly, thinks it looks like a museum installation. Nothing living. At least we're going the right direction, Dad says cheerfully.
They reach the border, but only scattered documents and a few barren posts remain. Somebody is sitting alone on one of the posts playing a video game. It's Buddy! He waves at them. Where's the border crossing? Dad asks. They came and took it away, Buddy says, crawling into the backseat beside Gran. They said it was on the wrong road. Are you alright? Mom asks, trying not to scream. I've been laid off, Mom. They said they'd be in touch.
They told me that, too, Sis says. Do you think it's just a line?
They cross into late afternoon sunshine and soon they are driving through light traffic down the sunny highway, heading for home, bits and pieces of the new car falling off as they roll along. Dad whistles a little tune. Everything is familiar now, and so, being familiar, passes without notice. I know where I am, Mom says, her eyes closed, but I'm still lost. Back to the cosmic bafflement pills, if the neighbors haven't taken them.
They have. Everything is gone except the picnic table. Even the wall switches and the lightbulbs. The toilet paper holders. Maybe leaving the picnic table was intended as a kindness.
Dad changes out of his prison jumpsuit into his pajama pants and white shirt, and he and Sis go for carryout, sodas, and a couple of six-packs with Gran's money. Mom is immobile on the wooden living room floor when they return, so they lift her out and set her on the picnic table in the twilit backyard, open the beers. The katydids welcome them. That trip was cool, Buddy says. It was all so real, Sis says, but like more than real, so not real at all. Augmented, Dad says, but only to himself. What happened? asks Mom from the table. Where am I? It's all a blur...
We went for a ride in the new car, Gran says. Things happened. Then we came home again.
Mom's wonderment is beclouded by bafflement. Her pills are gone. Someone took them.
What did you say, Gran? Sis asks.
Gran smiles, more or less toothlessly, and raises her whiskey bottle. FAMILY PICNIC! she yells.
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