8 | Ben’s Birthday

A very confused and heartbroken trucker grew smaller next to a lump in the middle of the road behind us. We were still going the wrong direction, but for now all that mattered was getting away from the scene of the crime. Roy was roadkill and we were guilty of pig napping and accidental swine slaughter.

Do you think he got our plates? I asked.

He was too stunned.

Riding shotgun, panting, just as Roy had been a few minutes ago, CA Man did nothing but shout directions to turn this way and that. At one point, he said he wouldn’t step foot in Fresno so we needed to pick another route, which meant taking a bunch of strangely straight roads through nearly nothing but nut farms.

Finally, when the gas gauge needle tilted dangerously close to E, I found the nearest Valero. We pulled in and CA Man shuffled through his backpack until he found his black trash bag again. I would have asked him what the hell he carried that thing around for, but I didn’t want him snooping into my business so I figured it was best to not ask. After he hopped out of the cab, I checked the hidden compartment in my own bag. This was the first time we’d been alone since CA Man decided to stow away in our lives and I was happy to find everything where I left it.

Peace of mind back in place, I refueled the Tacoma, or tried. Gas spewed from the nozzle after a minute. Dammit, I said, lifting the handle to let a soft rush of air out of the tank. We needed a new vent solenoid, too. It would have been nice if CA Man had been able to wrangle his mechanic friend into adding that to his work, but it wouldn’t affect much for the time being. It was just annoying.

When we were back on the road, CA Man continued shouting directions until I finally said, If you would tell me where you’re trying to go, I could probably get us there a little easier.

Instead of answering, he demanded that I pull over right then and there to satiate his hunger. So, we ended up at a random place on the side of highway 180, between a hillside of trees and more tumbleweed producing shrubs. On the outside, it was only a step above the tin trash hut where he’d taken us hostage. Its riveted metal walls were painted white and it had an outdated maroon awning above the door that read, Bear Mountain Pizza.

Fine, I said, slamming the truck into park, taking note of how full the parking lot seemed for such a secluded location.

At least it was next to a NAPA. I had high hopes of finding a replacement part for the Tacoma. In fact, that was my first mission and I let CA Man wander away to get us a table while I made a beeline for the parts store. When I returned, I instantly regretted my decision.

The first thing I saw when I walked in were Ben Then and Ben Now posters plastered on the back wall with a ribbon streamed between them that said, Happy Birthday Ben. Both photos were of a white man’s face, taken from the bridge of his nose up. The only difference was that in one he had a massive pile of curly, light brown hair on top of his head to rival Napoleon Dynamite on a humid day, and in the other, he was bald with a pair of black rimmed glasses. In front of the posters, CA Man was in the center of the room, chugging a pitcher of beer, encouraged by a crowd of cheering fans who were led by a man I could only presume was Ben.

A moment of sheer panic fled through me when I realized the entire place was covered in Ben’s birthday celebrators. There wasn’t a single unoccupied table in the room and we were officially crashing a birthday party. Thankfully, CA Man didn’t notice when I turned on my heel and walked straight out the door.

Back in the Tacoma, I took a deep breath of our finest Cannabis, left over from the last joint CA Man had passed around, and gobbled down a few shrooms. If we were partying, we were partying.

I ran inside to join CA Man, hovering around the edges of the room until the man from the posters walked up to me and said, Hey y’all. I’m Ben.

Elated, as if I’d met a celebrity, I followed Ben around while he introduced me to everyone, until, somehow, I naturally flowed into the chaos of the party. Then, I was in the center of the room, chugging a pitcher of beer, encouraged by Ben and his birthday crew.

When it was time for Ben to open his presents, I felt rude for not bringing one. How could I possibly have shown up empty handed to a birthday party for Ben?

I was scanning the room for the best and worst presents to gauge my chances at recovery with something from the camper, when Ben approached the giant box in the corner. It was precariously wrapped with gaudy matte black and shiny gold paper.

Ben’s first tear revealed a large gold and black brand logo that matched. It said, Astra. Whatever brand that was, it was so fancy that it made half the room gasp and the other half look around in confusion.

No way, a woman to my right said, It’s an Astra Jetpack.

A jetpack?! I blurted out.

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