In the Wheels by Daryl Gregory 

This is my first sale, which appeared in the August 1990 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I wrote the story in the summer of 1988, during the first couple weeks of the Clarion Writer's Workshop. The first draft was a third shorter, and it was Samuel R. Delany, the teacher that week, who pointed out that the story wasn't complete: the narrator had to return home and face the music.

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of the amber, out of the midst of the fire… and this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man…. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

—Ezekiel 1:4-5, 20

It was just a car.

“No!” said Zeke from underneath it, “it’s more than that, Joey. It’s fucking perfect.”

We were fifteen. Zeke had found a huge underground vault, a crypt of old cars in the City, and he had dragged me out there to hold the lantern while he checked it out. I was supposed to be on the way to my Uncle Peter’s farm to help bring in the hay.

“Zeke, don’t be crazy. Let’s get out of here.” The City was death, everybody knew that. I could feel the germs and the rads crawling across my skin. We were going to be dead in three days with huge welts all over our skin. Superstitious, I know.

Zeke could always get me to do stuff I never would have done on my own. He would say something like, why don’t we go up and sit on the white highways; and even though I thought it was a completely stupid idea, I would go. Or he would say, let’s go into Dead City and look for a car, and even though nobody’d lived in The City since before the Cold, I would say all right, and we’d go.

And here I was.

The car looked to me like a crumbling wreck. It was a big Chevy, which Zeke pronounced “Shev-ee” like his father Frank. The tires were flat and rotted out, the paint job was webbed with cracks, and the stuff on the inside was all split and pitted.

Zeke rolled out from beneath the car and grinned. “Don’t be such a little girl. The block’s intact. It’ll work.”

“You’re crazy,” I said. The car looked nothing like the chariots they raced on the white highways, and I told him so. “Besides, how are you going to get it out of here?” We’d had to dig our way through rubble ourselves, and I saw no way to get this heap up to the surface.

“Leave that to me,” he said. I should have known then that he was serious. There was no natural way to move that much rock out of the way, much less carry the car up.

* * *

Two weeks later Zeke caught me as I was walking home from the schoolhouse. The palms of his hands were wrapped in rags. “Joey, boy. Tonight we should take a little trip.”

“What did you do to your hands?”

“Nothing. Hurt ’em working on the car. Will you be there?”

“I can’t sneak out again without getting caught. Why can’t we wait til Saturday?”

My sisters raced past us. “We’re gonna tell Firstmother you’re talking to Zeke!”

“Oh Lord Jesus,” I said. I would catch heck later.

“Don’t worry about it. Tonight, all right? And bring paint.”

“Paint? Where am I going to get paint?”

“Check your barn, stupid.”

Zeke was right, as usual. There was paint in the barn, some old cans of red that Grampa had mixed years ago. But I couldn’t take off with it until nightfall.

* * *

The fire is always the center of the home. Father had built the chimney first, stone by stone, and the kitchen around it. As the children were born he had added small rooms that sprang off from the kitchen at odd angles, and after I’d gotten big enough to help him we built the porch around the front door.

Firstmother started her prayer that evening with the usual, “Thank you Jesus for the Summer Sun,” while Sara, my pop’s new young wife (barely older than me), passed potatoes and a little mashed corn around the table. Pop took a potato and bit into it. Firstmother went through the entire list of crops we were hoping for, plus all of the sins me, my sisters, Pop, and most of all Sara had committed that week. She kept going until she saw that Sara was almost finished setting the table, and then Firstmother finished off the whole thing by saying, “and especially watch over our young Joseph, and protect him from the temptations that so beset a young man.” My sisters giggled; then we all said “Amen.” Sara sat down gratefully.

Firstmother eyed the table. “I don’t see no salt here.”

Sara jumped up and vanished into the kitchen, and Firstmother said, “I been hearing that you were running around with Zeke again after Schoolhouse.” My sisters giggled again.

“No ma’am, I wasn’t ‘running around,’ I just….”

“Don’t talk back to me, boy.” Sara came back into the room carrying the salt bowl. My father was chewing intently, silently, as always. And Sara was worse than no help, a liability.

It was time. I either had to stand up for Zeke or listen forever to everything Firstmother said. I looked her in the eye. “What’s the matter with Zeke, anyways?”

She stared back. “You know what’s the matter with Zeke. His father’s a drunk, a black magician, a road racer, a no-good consorter with demons—”

“Enough, Rachel.”

Firstmother stopped in mid sentence. Sara and us kids dropped our eyes instantly to our plates. Pop never spoke at the dinner table.

“What did you say, Samuel?” Firstmother said icily.

Pop looked up. He kept chewing as he talked, red potatoes mashing between his teeth. His voice was quiet, like when he was explaining why he was going to hit you for not feeding the horses on time. “I said, Rachel, that enough was enough. Frank Landers has had his troubles. I don’t want any wife of mine continuing to add to them.”

Firstmother was almost sputtering. “I will not have my son hanging around with the son of a demoner!” She picked up her plate and stalked to the kitchen.

Pop picked up another potato. My sisters stared moodily at their food. And even with her head bowed and her hair falling across her eyes, I could see the barest beginnings of a smile on Sara’s face.

* * *

Just after ten that night I was banging around in the dark with two cans of red paint. I’d stuffed my blankets with pillows and climbed out the window, hoping that Firstmother wouldn’t think to check on me—she did that sometimes.

I was circling Zeke’s house to knock on his bedroom window when I saw lamplight seeping through the cracks of the old shed set away from the house. The door, usually chained shut, was busted open. Zeke was there, his back to me as he rummaged through some cabinets at the back of the shed. And there was something else.

It was a Pontiac—one of the big cars they race down in Mexicana. It was painted almost all black, but in the flicker I could make out a spiderweb of silver lines. The tires were low, and there was some rust along the bottom of the driver’s side door, but overall it looked real good.

“You’re late,” Zeke said when he turned around. “Here. Grab these.” He was holding up three dusty books,

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