WHERE?

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Stan twists in the front seat, trying to get comfortable. Not much fucking chance of that. So what can he do? Where can they turn? There's no safe place, there are no instructions. It's like he's being blown by a vicious but mindless wind, aimlessly round and round in circles. No way out.

He feels so lonely, and sometimes having Charmaine with him makes him feel lonelier. He's let her down.

He has a brother, true, but that would be a last resort. He and Conor had followed different paths, was the polite way of saying it. A drunken midnight fight, with dickhead and douchebag and shit-for-brains freely exchanged, would be the impolite way of saying it, and it was in fact the way Conor had chosen during their last encounter. To be accurate, Stan had chosen that way too, though he'd never had as foul a mouth as Con.

In Stan's view - his view at that time - Conor was next door to a criminal. But in Con's view Stan was a dupe of the system, an ass‐kisser, a farce, and a coward. Balls of a tadpole.

Where's slippery Conor now, what's he doing? At least he won't have lost his job in the big financial‐crash business‐wrecking meltdown that turned this part of the country into a rust bucket: you can't lose your job if you don't have one. Unlike Stan, he hasn't been expelled, cast out, condemned to a life of frantic, grit‐in‐the‐eyes, rancid‐armpit wandering. Con always lived off what he could mooch or filch from others, ever since he was a kid. Stan hasn't forgotten his Swiss Army knife that he'd saved up for, his Transformer, his Nerf gun with the foam bullets: magical disap‐ pearances all, with Con's younger‐brother head going shake shake shake from side to side, no way, who, me?

Stan wakes at night thinking for a moment that he's home in bed, or at least in a bed of some sort. He reaches for Charmaine, but she isn't there beside him and he finds himself inside the stinking car, needing a piss but afraid to unlock the door because of the voices yammering toward him and the footsteps crunching on gravel or thudding on asphalt, and maybe a fist thumping on the roof and a scarred, partly toothed face grinning in the window:

Lookit what we got! Cockfodder! Let's open 'er up! Gimme the crowbar!

And then Charmaine's terrified little whisper:"Stan! Stan!We need to go!We need to go right now!"As if he couldn't figure that out for himself. He keeps the key in the ignition, always. Rev of motor, screech of tires, yelling and jeering, pounding of heart, and then what? More of the same in some other parking lot or sidestreet, somewhere else. It would be nice if he had a machine gun: nothing any smaller would even come close. As it is, his only weapon is flight.

He feels pursued by bad luck, as if bad luck is a feral dog, lurking along behind him, following his scent, lying in wait around corners. Peering out from under bushes to fix him with its evil yellow eye. Maybe what he needs is a witch doctor, some serious voodoo. Plus a couple of hundred bucks so they could spend a night in a motel, with Charmaine beside him instead of out of reach in the back seat.That would be the bare minimum: to wish for any more would be pushing it.

Charmaine's commiseration makes it worse. She tries so hard."You are not a failure," she says. "Just because we lost the house and we're sleep‐ ing in the car, and you got . . ." She doesn't want to say fired. "

"And you haven't given up, at least you're looking for a job.Those things like losing the house, and, and . . . those things have happened to a lot of people. To most people."

"But not to everyone," Stan would say."Not to fucking everyone." Not to rich people.

They'd started out so well. They both had jobs then. Charmaine was in the Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics chain, doing entertainment and events - she had a special touch with the elderly, said the supervisors - and she was working her way up. He was doing well too: junior quality control at Dimple Robotics, testing the Empathy Module in the automated Customer Fulfillment models. People didn't just want their groceries bagged, he used to explain to Charmaine: they wanted a total shopping experience, and that included a smile. Smiles were hard; they could turn into grimaces or leers, but if you got a smile right, they'd spend extra for it. Amazing to remember, now, what people would once spend extra for.

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