Escape Pod 497: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide
A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide
by Sarah Pinsker
Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.
Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.
“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.
“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.”
“What does that mean?” he asked. He tried to move his right hand to touch his head, but the hand didn’t respond. He used his left and encountered bandages.
His father spoke from a chair by the window, flat-brimmed John Deere cap obscuring his eyes. “It means you’ve got a prototype arm and a whole lot of people interested in how it turns out. Could help a lot of folks.”
Andy looked down at where his arm had been. Bandages obscured the points where flesh met prosthetic; beyond the bandages, the shine of new metal and matte-black wire. The new arm looked like their big irrigation rig, all spines and ridges and hoses. It ended in a pincer, fused fingers and a thumb. He tried to remember the details of his right hand: the freckles on the back, the rope-burn scar around his knuckles, the calluses on the palm. What had they done with it? Was it in a garbage can somewhere, marked as medical waste? It must have been pretty chewed up or they would have tried to reattach it.
He looked at the other arm. An IV was stuck in the “Forever” of his tattoo. He thought something far away was hurting, but he didn’t feel much. Maybe the IV explained that. He tried again to lift his right arm. It still didn’t budge, but this time it did hurt, deep in his chest.
“Can’t prosthetics look like arms these days?” he asked.
His practical mother spoke again. “Those ones aren’t half as useful. You can replace this hand with a more realistic one later if you want, but to get full use of the arm they said to go with the brain interface. No nerves left to send the impulses to a hand otherwise, no matter how fancy.”
He understood. “How do I use it?”
“You don’t, not for a while. But they were able to attach it right away. Used to be they’d wait for the stump to heal before fitting you, but this they said they had to go ahead and put in.”
“You don’t have a stump, anyway.” His father chopped at his own shoulder as an indicator. “You’re lucky you still have a head.”
He wondered what the other options had been, if there had been any. It made sense that his parents would choose this. Theirs had always been the first farm in Saskatchewan for every new technology. His parents believed in automation. They liked working the land with machines, gridding it with spreadsheets and databases, tilling the fields from the comfort of the office.
He was the throwback. He liked the sun on his face. He kept a team of Shires for plowing and used their manure for fertilizer. He had his father’s old diesel combine for harvest time, his biggest concession to speed and efficiency. And now it had taken his arm. He didn’t know if that was an argument for his horses and tractors or his parents’ self-guided machines. The machines would take out your fence if you programmed the coordinates wrong, but unless your math was really off they probably wouldn’t make it into your office. On the other hand – now a pincer – it had been his own stupid fault he had reached into the stuck header.
Andy’s world shrank to the size of the hospital room. He stood by the window and read the weather and fought the urge to call his parents, who were taking care of his small farm next to theirs in his absence. Had they finished harvesting before the frost? Had they moved the chicken run closer to the house? He had to trust them.
The doctor weaned him off the pain medications quickly. “You’re a healthy guy,” she said. “Better to cope than get hooked on opiates.” Andy nodded, figuring he could handle it. He knew the aches of physical labor, of days when you worked until you were barely standing, and then a Shire shifted his weight and broke your foot, and you still had to get up and work again the next day.
Now his body communicated a whole new dialect of pain: aches wrapped in aches, throbbing in parts that didn’t exist anymore. He learned to articulate the difference between stinging and stabbing pains, between soreness and tenderness. When the worst of it had broken over him, an endless prairie storm, the doctor gave the go-ahead for him to start using his arm.
“You’re a fast learner, buddy,” his occupational therapist told him when he had mastered closing the hand around a toothbrush. Brad was a big Assiniboine guy, only a couple of years older than Andy and relentlessly enthusiastic. “Tomorrow you can try dressing yourself.”
“Fast is relative.” Andy put the toothbrush down, then tried to pick it up again. He knocked it off the table.
Brad smiled but didn’t make a move for the fallen toothbrush. “It’s a process, eh? Your muscles have new roles to learn. Besides, once you get through these things, the real fun begins with that rig.”
The real fun would be interesting, if he ever got there. The special features. He would have to learn to interpret the signal from the camera on the wrist, feeding straight to his head. There were flashlights and body telemetry readings to turn off and on. He looked forward to the real tests for those features: seeing into the dark corners of an engine, turning a breach calf. Those were lessons worth sticking around for. Andy bent down and concentrated on closing his hand on the toothbrush handle.
Just before he was due to go home, an infection sank its teeth in under his armpit. The doctor gave him antibiotics and drained the fluid. That night, awash in fever, he dreamed his arm was a highway. The feeling stuck with him when he woke.
Andy had never wanted much. He had wanted Lori to love him, forever and ever, but she didn’t and that was that. As a child, he’d asked for the calf with the blue eyes, Maisie, and he kept her until she was big enough to be sold, and that was that. He’d never considered doing anything except working his own land next to his parents’ and taking over theirs when they retired. There was no point in wanting much else.
Now he wanted to be a road, or his right arm did. It wanted with a fierceness that left him baffled, a wordless yearning that came from inside him and outside him at once. No, more than that. It didn’t just want to be a road. It knew it was one. Specifically, a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado. A stretch that could see all the way to the mountains, but was content not to reach them. Cattleguards on either side, barbed wire, grassland.
Andy had never been to Colorado. He’d never been out of Saskatchewan, not even to Calgary or Winnipeg. He’d never seen a mountain. The fact that he was able to describe the contours of the mountains in the distance, and the tag numbers in the ears of the bald-faced cows, told him he wasn’t imagining things. He was himself and he was also a road.
“Ready to get back to work, buddy? How’s it feeling?” Brad asked him.
Andy shrugged. He knew he should tell Brad about the road, but he didn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer. Bad enough that his parents had been forced to finish his harvest, grumbling the whole time about his archaic machinery. There was no way he would risk a delay.
“Infection’s gone, but it’s talking a lot. Still takes some getting used to,” he said, which was true. It fed him the temperature, the levels of different pollutants in the air. It warned him when he was pushing himself too hard on the treadmill. And then there was the road thing.
Brad tapped his own forehead. “You remember how to dial back the input if it gets too much?”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
Brad smiled and reached for a cooler he had brought with him. “Great, man. In that case, today you’re going to work on eggs.”
“You’re a farmer, right? You have to pick up eggs without cracking them. And then you have to make lunch. Believe me, this is expert level. Harder than any of that fancy stuff. You master eggs with that hand, you graduate.”
Brad and the doctors finally gave him permission to leave a week later.
“You want to drive?” asked his father, holding out the keys to Andy’s truck.
Andy shook his head and walked around to the passenger side. “I’m not sure I could shove into second gear. Might need to trade this in for an automatic.”
His father gave him a once-over. “Maybe so. Or just practice a bit around the farm?”
“I’m not scared. Just careful.”
“Fair enough, fair enough.” His father started the truck.
He wasn’t scared, but it was more than being careful. At first, the joy of being in his own house eclipsed the weird feeling. The road feeling. He kept up the exercises he had learned in physical therapy. They had retaught him how to shave and cook and bathe, and he retaught himself how to groom and tack the horses. He met up with his buddies from his old hockey team at the bar in town, to try to prove that everything was normal.
Gradually, the aches grew wider. How could you be a road, in a particular place, and yet not be in that place? Nothing felt right. He had always loved to eat, but now food was tasteless. He forced himself to cook, to chew, to swallow. He set goals for the number of bites he had to take before stopping.
He had lost muscle in the hospital, but now he grew thinner. His new body was wiry instead of solid. Never much of a mirror person, he started making himself look. Motivation, maybe. A way to try to communicate with his own brain. He counted his ribs. The synthetic sleeving that smoothed the transition from pectorals to artificial arm gapped a little because of his lost mass. If anything was worth notifying the doctors about, it was that. Gaps led to chafing, they had said, then down the slippery slope to irritation and abrasion and infection. You don’t work a horse with a harness sore.
In the mirror, he saw his gaunt face, his narrowed shoulder, the sleeve. His left arm, with its jagged love letter. On the right side, he saw road. A trick of the mind. A glitch in the software. Shoulder, road. He knew it was all there: the pincer hand, the metal bones, the wire sinew. He opened and closed the hand. It was still there, but it was gone at the same time.
He scooped grain for the horses with his road hand, ran his left over their shaggy winter coats. He oiled machinery with his road hand. Tossed hay bales and bags of grain with both arms working together. Worked on his truck in the garage. Other trucks made their slow way down a snowy highway in Colorado that was attached to him by wire, by electrode, by artificial pathways that had somehow found their way from his brain to his heart. He lay down on his frozen driveway, arms at his sides, and felt the trucks rumble through.
The thaw came late to both of Andy’s places, the farm and the highway. He had hoped the bustle of spring might bring relief, but instead he felt even more divided.
He tried to explain the feeling to Susan over a beer on her tiny screen porch. She had moved back to town while he was in the hospital, rented a tiny apartment on top of the tattoo parlor. A big-bellied stove took up most of the porch, letting her wear tank tops even this early in the season. Her arms were timelines, a progression of someone else’s skill; her own progression must be on other arms, back in Vancouver. She had gone right after high school, to apprentice herself to some tattoo bigshot. Andy couldn’t figure out why she had returned, but here she was, back again.
The sleeves of his jacket hid his own arms. Not that he was hiding anything. He held the beer in his left hand now only because his right hand dreamed of asphalt and tumbleweeds. He didn’t want to bother it.
“Maybe it’s recycled,” Susan said. “Maybe it used to belong to some Colorado rancher.”
Andy shook his head. “It isn’t in the past, and it isn’t a person on the road.”
“The software, then? Maybe that’s the recycled part, and the chip was meant for one of those new smart roads near Toronto, the ones that drive your car for you.”
“Maybe.” He drained the beer, then dropped the can to the porch and crushed it with the heel of his workboot. He traced his scars with his fingertips: first the scalp, then across and down his chest, where metal joined to flesh.
“Are you going to tell anybody else?” Susan asked.
He listened to the crickets, the undertones of frog. He knew Susan was hearing those, too. He didn’t think she heard the road thrumming in his arm. “Nah. Not for now.”
Andy’s arm was more in Colorado every day. He struggled to communicate with it. It worked fine; it was just elsewhere. Being a road wasn’t so bad, once he got used to it. People say a road goes to and from places, but it doesn’t. A road is where it is every moment of the day.
He thought about driving south, riding around until he could prove whether or not the place actually existed, but he couldn’t justify leaving after all that time in the hospital. Fields needed to be tilled and turned and seeded. Animals needed to be fed and watered. He had no time for road trips, no matter how important the trip or the road.
Susan dragged him to a bonfire out at the Oakley farm. He didn’t want to go, hadn’t been to a party since he had bought his own land, but she was persuasive. “I need to reconnect with my client base and I don’t feel like getting hit on the whole time,” she said. He hung his robot arm out the window to catch the wind as she drove. Wind twenty-one kilometers per hour, it told him. Twelve degrees Celsius. In the other place, five centimeters of rain had fallen in the last two hours, and three vehicles had driven through.
The bonfire was already going in a clearing by the barn, a crowd around it, shivering. Doug Oakley was a year older than Andy, Hugh still in high school. They both lived with their parents, which meant this was a parents-out-of-town party. Most of the parties Andy had ever been to were like this, except he had been on the younger side of the group then instead of the older side. There’s a point at which you’re the cool older guy, and then after that you’re the weird older guy who shouldn’t be hanging with high school kids anymore. He was pretty sure he had crossed that line.
Susan had bought a case of Molson to make friends and influence people. She hoisted it out of the backseat now and emptied the beers into a cooler in the grass. She took one for herself and tossed one to him, but it bounced off his new hand. He glanced around to see if anybody had noticed. He shoved that can deep into the ice and freed another one from the cooler. He held it in the pincer and popped the top with his left, then drained half of it in one chug. The beer was cold and the air was cold and he wished he had brought a heavier jacket. At least he could hold the drink in his metal hand. His own insulator.
The high school girls all congregated by the porch. Most of them had plastic cups instead of cans, for mixing Clamato with their beer. Susan looked at them and snorted. “If I live to be two hundred, I will never understand that combination.”
They walked toward the fire. It blazed high, but its heat didn’t reach far beyond the first circle of people knotted around it. Andy shifted from foot to foot, trying to get warm, breathing in woodsmoke. He looked at the faces, recognizing most of them. The Oakley boys, of course, and their girlfriends. They always had girlfriends. Doug had been engaged at one point and now he wasn’t. Andy tried to remember details. His mother would know.
He realized that the girl on Doug’s arm now was Lori. Nothing wrong with that – Doug was a nice guy – but Lori had always talked about university. Andy had soothed his broken heart by saying she deserved more than a farmer’s life. It hurt him a little to see her standing in the glow of the flame, her hands in her armpits. He didn’t mind that he was still here, but he didn’t think she ought to be. Or maybe she was just leaning against Doug for warmth? It wasn’t his business anymore, he supposed.
Lori slipped from under Doug’s arm and into the crowd. She appeared next to Susan a moment later.
“Hey,” she said, raising a hand in greeting, then slipping it back under her armpit, either out of awkwardness or cold. She looked embarrassed.
“Hey,” he replied, nodding his beer toward her with the robot hand. He tried to make it a casual movement. Only a little beer sloshed out of the can.
“I heard about your arm, Andy. I felt terrible. Sorry I didn’t call, but the semester got busy…” she trailed off.
It was a lousy excuse, but his smile was genuine. “It’s cool. I understand. You’re still in university?”
“Yeah. Winnipeg. I’ve got one more semester.”
“What are you majoring in?” Susan asked.
“Physics, but I’ll be going to grad school for meteorology. Climate science.”
“Awesome. You know what would make a cool tattoo for a climate scientist?”
Andy excused himself to get another beer. When he came back, Susan was drawing a barometer on the back of Lori’s hand. She and Lori had never been close, but they had gotten on okay. Susan had liked that Lori had ambition, and Lori had liked dating a guy whose best friend was a girl, which she said was pretty unusual. If they had moved to the same city, CTV could have made some cheesy buddy comedy about them, the small town valedictorian and the small town lesbian punk in the big city. He would make a one-time appearance as the guy who had stayed behind.
After his fifth beer he couldn’t feel anything but the road in his sleeve. The air in Colorado smelled like ozone, like maybe a storm was about to hit. That night, after Susan had drawn marker tattoos onto several of their former classmates and invited them to stop at her shop, after promises of email were exchanged with Lori, after the hazy drive home, he dreamed the highway had taken him over entirely. In the nightmare, the road crept up past his arm, past his shoulder. It paved his heart, flattened his limbs, tarred his mouth and eyes, so that he woke gasping before dawn.
He set up an appointment with a therapist. Dr. Bird’s broad face was young, but her hair was completely silver-white. She nodded sympathetically as she listened.
“I’m not really here to give my opinion, but I think maybe you were rushed into this BCI thing. You didn’t have a part in the decision. You didn’t have any time to get used to the idea of having no arm.”
“Did I need to get used to that?”
“Some people do. Some people don’t have a choice, because their bodies need to heal before regular prosthetics can be fitted.”
What she said made sense, but it didn’t explain anything. It would have explained phantom pains, or dreams that his arm was choking him. He had read about those things. But a road? None of her theories jibed. He drove home on flat prairie highway, then flat prairie two-lane, between fallow fields and grazing land. The road to his parents’ farm, and his own parcel of land in back of theirs, was dirt. His new truck had lousy shock absorbers, and every rut jolted him on the bench.
He had lived here his whole life, but his arm was convinced it belonged someplace else. On the way home it spoke to him without words. It pulled him. Turn around, it said. South, south, west. I am here and I am not here, he thought, or maybe it thought. I love my home, he tried to tell it. Even as he said it, he longed for the completion of being where he was, both Saskatchewan and Colorado. This was not a safe way to be. Nobody could live in two places at once. It was a dilemma. He couldn’t leave his farm, not unless he sold it, and the only part of him that agreed with that plan was not really part of him at all.
That night he dreamed he was driving the combine through his canola field when it jammed. He climbed down to fix it, and this time it took his prosthetic. It chewed the metal and the wire and he found himself hoping it would just rip the whole thing from his body, clear up to his brain, so he could start afresh. But then it did keep going. It didn’t stop with the arm. It tore and ripped, and he felt a tug in his head that turned into throbbing, then a sharp and sharp and sharper pain.
The pain didn’t go away when he woke. He thought it was a hangover, but no hangover had ever felt like that. He made it to the bathroom to throw up, then crawled back to his cellphone by the bed to call his mother. The last thing he thought of before he passed out was that Brad had never taught him how to crawl on the prosthetic. It worked pretty well.
He woke in the hospital again. He checked his hands first. Left still there, right still robot. With the left, he felt along the familiar edges of the prosthetic and the sleeve. Everything was still there. His hand went up to his head, where it encountered bandages. He tried to lift the prosthetic, but it didn’t move.
A nurse entered the room. “You’re awake!” she said with a West Indian lilt. “Your parents went home but they’ll be back after feeding time, they said.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Pretty bad infection around the chip in your head, so they took it out. The good news is that the electrodes all scanned fine. They’ll give you a new chip when the swelling goes down, and you’ll be using that fine bit of machinery again in no time.”
She opened the window shade. From the bed, all Andy saw was sky, blue and serene. The best sky to work under. He looked down at the metal arm again, and realized that for the first time in months, he saw the arm, and not Colorado. He could still bring the road – his road – to mind, but he was no longer there. He felt a pang of loss. That was that, then.
When the swelling went down, a new chip was installed in his head. He waited for this one to assert itself, to tell him his arm was a speedboat or a satellite or an elephant’s trunk, but he was alone in his head again. His hand followed his directions, hand-like. Open, close. No cows, no dust, no road.
He asked Susan to get him from the hospital. Partly so his parents wouldn’t have to disrupt their schedules again, and partly because he had something to ask her.
In her car, driving home, he rolled up his left sleeve. “Remember this?” he asked.
She glanced at it and flushed. “How could I forget? I’m sorry, Andy. Nobody should go through life with a tattoo that awful.”
“It’s okay. I was just wondering, well, if you’d maybe fix it. Change it.”
“God, I’d love to! You’re the worst advertisement my business could have. Do you have anything in mind?”
He did. He looked at the jagged letters. The “I” of “LORI” could easily be turned into an A, the whole name disappeared into COLORADO. It was up to him to remember. Somewhere, in some medical waste bin back in Saskatoon, there was a computer chip that knew it was a road. A chip that was an arm that was Andy who was a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado. A stretch that could see all the way to the mountains, but was content not to reach them. Forever and ever.
About the Author
Sarah Pinsker’s fiction has won the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Philip K. Dick Awards, and she has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and other awards. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea(Small Beer Press) and her first novel, Song For A New Day (Berkley), were published in 2019. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and another forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore with her wife and dog.
About the Narrator
David White is a person who exists.