UPGRADES

Chapter 01.

"Will!"

My dad's voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the semi's diesel engine, and the rattle of gravel as we bounced over the nearly nonexistent road.

I looked up from my phone, squinting against the desert sun. It baked my face, despite the semi's air conditioning.

"Huh?" I asked.

"You're going to ruin your eyes doing that," said dad.

"No I won't," I said. But I shoved the phone into my jeans pocket. All our jouncing made it too hard to text a reply anyway. Not even a semi tractor could smooth the ride on this miserable strip of rock strewn potholes and ruts. And besides, this far out in the Mojave there was no phone service.

Dad cut his eyes towards me, momentarily taking them from the road.

"They'll only be gone for a couple of weeks," he said.

"I know," I said.

Dad must have heard something in my tone.

"There will still be plenty of time for you and Brad to go camping when he gets back," he said.

"If they come back," I said.

"Of course they're coming back," said dad. "The Kellers won't sell their ranch until the end of summer. Maybe not even then."

I knew better. Brad's last text said his dad had been offered the ranch foreman job in Colorado.

What would happen when school started next fall? The thought of starting my high school freshman year without Brad made my heart sink into my stomach.

Dad's next question broke into my worries.

"Are you sure you can take care of their stock while I'm on the road?"

"Sure," I said. "It's just three horses. I can bike there once a day easy."

Dad glanced at me again.

"Are you fretting about that trail riding business you and Brad are always talking about?"

I bristled at the skepticism I heard in dad's voice.

"It would have worked," I said. "We had everything planned. Mr. Keller could have run the business with Brad and me guiding the trail rides."

"Maybe," said dad. "But don't forget Desert Trek. They're tough competition, and you boys are still a long way from graduating." As quickly as my anger rose, it slipped away, replaced by gloom. Without Brad, the next two weeks would not be much fun, and I did not want to think about him moving away. I crossed my arms and settled back in my seat without answering.

"Thanks for coming with me today," said dad at last.

"Yeah, sure," I said.

Neither of us mentioned it would be my last chance to see dad before he took off on a long haul job to the east coast. I was used to this. Sometimes I would not see him for weeks.

"We're almost there," said dad.

I looked out the window at the surrounding landscape. A clump of Joshua trees, with their thick, shaggy branches, like fingers tipped with evergreen bushes, reached towards the sky.

Ahead of us, heat waves made the road shimmer. The truck's air conditioning warred with the sun pouring through the window.

At last several large, square buildings appeared in the distance, at the foot of a ridge of steep hills to their west. Dad slowed as we approached a tall chain link fence. Dad stopped beside a gate intercom, and lowered his window.

Instantly the heat rolled into the cab. Dad cursed as every last trace of cool air vanished. Immediately sweat beaded on dad's forehead, and salty drops slid down my own face.

"Please identify yourself," said a woman's voice from the intercom.

"Greg Barrett," said dad. "I'm making a scheduled delivery."

There was a long pause.

"Mr. Barrett, there appears to be someone in the truck with you," said the woman.

I peered past my dad, and noticed a camera lens above the intercom speaker.

"It's my son," said dad. His voice was sharp. "He's here to help me unload."

This time there was a full minute of silence. I looked at the fence. It was at least twelve feet high, and topped with razor wire. Inside the fence were several three story gray buildings with all the character and appeal of cement blocks. The whole place made me think of a prison. Despite the heat, I shivered.

The woman's voice returned. "Very well, Mr. Barrett. Please drive directly to building C, and please remain in the unloading zone while you are on the premises."

Dad only grunted and rolled up his window. The gate swung open, and we drove inside.

"Last time I had to unload on my own," said dad. "These people did squat. If it wasn't for the money, I wouldn't put up with this."

"I hope they let us out again," I said, only half joking.

Dad let out a barking laugh. "It's just a research company, Will."

"What are they researching?" I asked.

"Beats me," said dad. "I just deliver their loads."

"But why are they way out here?" I looked around for the name of the company. There were no signs, except for single capital lettered plaques on each building.

"Who knows? Maybe they just like their privacy." Dad backed into a loading dock, and we both got out of the cab. The giant shipping door was rising by the time we walked to the back of the rig. We climbed onto the four foot high dock. No one was there.

While dad headed for a wall phone carrying his clipboard, I opened the trailer, and shoved our box roller across the gap between the trailer bed and the loading dock floor.

I checked one of the box labels. It was for a company called Genosynth. The name meant nothing to me. By the time I had pushed five boxes across the roller, my T shirt was sweat soaked and my hair was sticking flat to my scalp.

Dad came back looking disgusted, tossed his clipboard aside, and began stacking the boxes as they came off the roller.

It took us half an hour to unload the trailer. By then I was totally drenched and exhausted. Dad glared around the furnacelike loading dock, then strode towards the wall phone, thumping his clipboard against his leg.

"You can go back to the cab and cool off," said dad. "I need to get someone down here to sign off on this load."

"Ok, thanks," I said.

As dad picked up the phone and began dialing,

I jumped off the edge of the dock. A puff of dust rose around my sneakers when they hit the ground. I walked the length of the rig towards the cab. As I reached for the door handle, looking forward to the wash of air conditioning, a flicker of motion flashed in the corner of my eye.

I turned. Nothing moved in the large, empty space between the buildings. Then I walked out in front of the cab, searching for anything that was not brick, dirt or glass.

From here I could see four buildings, including the one where we had unloaded. All of the structures were identical, three story gray brick blocks with large, rectangular windows. Each building bore a large, square sign with a single letter from A to D on its side. At first I thought all the windows were empty. Then a figure appeared in a top corner window of the D building.

I stared up at a face. A girl's face. It was a pale oval in the window, framed by chestnut, shoulder length hair. I guessed she was my age, thirteen, maybe fourteen. Her eyes were fixed on me, and her hands were pressed flat against the window glass.

As I watched, she opened her mouth and said something. But I could not hear her. Her mouth moved silently, shaping the words.

It was only when she repeated her words a second and then a third time that I realized I was standing there, gaping up at her with my mouth open. I must have looked like an idiot.

The girl clenched her hands into fists, drew them back as if she were about to pound on the glass. Instead she stepped back. Her head jerked sideways, looking into the room. Then between one blink and the next, she was gone.

"Time to go, Will," called dad.

"Ok," I said. I kept looking at the window, but the girl did not reappear.

"Now!" said dad.

I turned. Dad strode up the driver's side, frowning. After one last look at the now empty window, I circled back to the passenger door and climbed up beside him.

Dad shifted into gear and we started to roll. He waited until we were back through the gate before he said anything.

"These people get a little touchy if they catch anyone snooping," he said.

"I wasn't snooping," I said, feeling defensive. "I just saw someone looking out at me through a window."

"Yeah, well they made it pretty clear they don't want me, or anyone else looking back in," said dad. "And since they pay triple my regular rates, I think we'll respect their wishes. Savvy?"

"Savvy," I said.

But as we drove back, I could not get the face of that girl out of my head. There had been something intense in her expression. And the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that the first word of whatever she was mouthing over and over again, was "Help."

 

 

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