Needs Must When the Devil Drives
It was a Saturday morning, bright and clear, when the black truck snaked down a lane of park cars to an empty spot, then came to a halt neatly between its new neighbors. The driver's side window rolled down, and the driver sat there, staring out at the state and national flags flapping in the breeze over red-tiled roofs and a vast expanse of grey stone and wire-topped chain-linked fencing. A little beyond the flagpoles, a squat stone placard proclaimed:
CALIFORNIA REHABILITATION CENTER – RIVERSIDE COUNTY
It was the sort of thing she imagined on Egyptian pyramids – forbidding, bleak stone engraving, chiseled laboriously into rock by manacled men. It certainly did nothing to make the knot in her stomach come undone. Nor did the music piping over the radio, and with a sigh, Mikaela said, without looking away from the long walk up to the jail's front door, "I'm not really in the mood for Jane's Addiction right now."
Instantly, the radio cut out. For perhaps another five minutes, she sat there, watching the gates, watching the guards who occasionally passed by on their rounds watch her in turn with cool, professional interest. Six years, she thought. Six years since the last time she had made this trek. The tension in the air wound slowly tighter, so that she found herself wondering if it had been a good idea after all to insist on making this trip by herself. Maybe it hadn't been, entirely, but company, and especially family, would have made things so complicated...
An unassuming door in the forbidding main building opened just then, and a figure in street clothes stepped out of it, arms full leather jacket and tugging a bit at his shirt front. Mikaela sat up suddenly straight, watching as he began to walk down the way towards the curb, and she gripped the steering wheel hard enough that her ride even took note.
"Is that him?" came Ironhide's disembodied voice. But Mikaela was already sliding out the door of his Topkick mode. The man saw her, and his step faltered a moment, then resumed and quickened as she began marching toward him, breaking into a run after a few strides.
The last yards were all a rush and blur, and then Mikaela was throwing herself into his arms, heedless of the sharp-eyed guards, heedless of the wire and incongruously cheerful red tiling and the unnatural quiet of the place, heedless of everything but a pair of strong arms and the scent of leather and familiar aftershave.
"Hey, Mikki," he said, voice suspiciously husky. Mikaela nodded into his shoulder, and wasn't sure who she was trying to reassure – him, or herself, as she murmured back:
Friday nights were movie nights for her and Sam – traditional, but especially with 'Bee inevitably in tow, they were fun. For one thing, there was the theater. Tranquility's one drive-in theater was the last, tenacious outpost of the seventies, and it looked as if it had held up against wind and neglect on nothing but gas fumes and psychedelic paint. The pavement was cracked and weeds annually sprouted up in the gaps, tracing green lines through the black. Speakers swayed gently on phone polls, where every so often, employees and technicians had to scramble up ladders to effect repairs. Once, a squirrel had even chewed through the wiring in the middle of a film, killing the sound on one side of the lot – the sound, and the squirrel. Mikaela thought the owner had done something to coat the wires after that, but she couldn't recall with certainty.
Toward the back of the lot stood the old kitchen, empty and unused, and destined to remain so. Neon green and orange with pink wedges, suggestive of watermelon or candy, it was a back-lot beacon, though the paint was peeling lately and the inane graffiti of thirty years of first dates competed with eighties punk tags and a more recent overlay of band names and obscenities.
To one side of the rows of parking spaces sat a rusty slide and swing-set. Mikaela remembered playing on the set when she had been a little girl, when she and her dad had come out here for fun, after her mom had gotten so sick the first time. It still got some use, though the kids who sat on it were teenagers these days, not young children. They would bike in anywhere between ten and twenty minutes after the start of the film, lean their bikes against the slide, then settle in to watch and dash away before the bored attendants could make them pay for the experience.
All in all, it was an odd scene, an attraction for quirks and nostalgics for as long as Mikaela could recall. Most people preferred the big cineplexes or the stately old movie house downtown that had its placard of proven "historical significance" mounted proudly by its doors, but Mikaela didn't care about any of that. She'd loved the old drive-in from the very first, and not least because she had inherited her father's love of cars. Whenever a film became dull, she would gaze longingly out the window at the rows of generally older model cars, no doubt kept on the road by grease-monkey love.
These days the cars were still old, and much more shabby, often, but no matter. She still loved the theater, and a good thing, too, given the company she kept lately. Where else, after all, could you take a sixteen foot tall robot to hang out, even if he couldn't leave his alt-mode? Then, too, there was something delicious about mocking commentary delivered straight to the big screen, without fear of upsetting the rest of the audience, and she and Sam would laugh themselves half-sick on lovingly crafted ridicule and microwaved popcorn, even if Bumblebee did from time to time protest the popcorn fights that left him to pick exploding kernels out of circuitry and drive-shafts for days. And of course, 'Bee had his own opinions of the movies, which usually made for an entertaining drive home, especially when the film of the week was science fiction.
In fact, they'd been arguing over the latest offense to 'Bee's mechanoid sensibilities when she'd gotten the call.
"It's not possible, I'm telling you," the Autobot had been insisting, while Sam had retorted:
"One word: Blackout."
"That was different! His operational function in the field is roughly equivalent to Sergeant Epps's. He backed up Soundwave on tactical communications and electronic warfare for millennia – and his technical base was exponentially better than SOCCENT's!"
To which, Sam laughingly reminded him:
"Dude, 'Bee, it's a movie – it's got Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in it. And Data!"
"It's a movie in which there is all artifice and no intelligence in the so-called 'artificial intelligence'! You can't hack a secure tactical communications network that easily – especially across a technological gap that wide! And that dog was purely superfluous!"
Sam had had his mouth already open, ready to respond, but before he could, Mikaela's phone had begun ringing. Frowning at the unfamiliar ring tone, Sam had done a double take instead on the time and asked, "Was there a curfew change?" Her boyfriend had learned quickly to respect Mikaela's Grandma Lori and her rules, if only because there was nothing so irritating as phone calls every five minutes if they stayed out past curfew, except hearing from his parents about the calls they received every ten minutes to ask if Sam and Mikaela were back yet.
"No," Mikaela had replied, hurriedly digging the phone from her purse. She'd stared at the number illumined on the screen, which seemed vaguely familiar despite its non-local area code, though she hadn't been able to place it.
"Is your grandma - ?"
"It's not Grandma Lori, Sam," she had said, by way of quick, if puzzled, reassurance. And she had been very aware of the curious silence from both her boyfriend and 'Bee as she'd flipped the receiver down and said, "Hello?"
There had been a pause, then: "Mikaela?" a man's voice had come back to her, and shock had momentarily robbed her of her voice. "Mikki, are you there?"
"I... yeah," she had managed finally. "Yeah, I'm here." Then, suddenly terrified: "Dad, what's going on? Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine, baby doll. No riots," he had said just a little too lightly. An awkward silence threatened, but he'd pushed past it just in time, coming to the point: "I need to know if you can do me a favor."
At that, suspicion had set in instantly. "What kind of favor?" Mikaela had asked warily.
"Nothing to spot your conscience," he had said, quickly, repeating her mother's words to her, as was his habit when trying to reassure her of anything. And when Mikaela hadn't said anything, only sat listening, he had taken her silence for tacit assent, and continued: "I need you to pick me up next week." There had come a pause, during which Mikaela struggled to find her voice. She'd still been struggling when he had continued quietly:
"I made parole. I'm coming home."
She watched as he pulled his jacket on – his favorite, an old bomber jacket he'd picked up from a thrift shop one year, when he'd taken Mikaela with him to do some Christmas shopping for her mom. She'd been four at the time; the jacket had fallen off its hanger to the floor, and been overlooked in the general crush. Mikaela, busily exploring the depths of the clothes-tree Amazon, had crawled under the rack, pushing her way between the rows and rows of fabric until she'd happened upon it. Already a fan of race cars and a bigger fan of propeller planes, she'd recognized it instantly and pounced on it in delight.
"Look, Daddy, look!" she'd cried, scrambling out with it firmly in tow, though it was hard going for a four year-old, heavy as it was. Thick, well-worn leather and yellowed wool, with a few faded squadron patches – even with the coffee stain on the sleeve, it had been a stretch to buy it, but they'd walked out of the store with it, and with a blouse for Mikaela's mother and a pair of plastic goggles for Mikaela.
"Flight goggles," her father had said, and winked when he'd handed them to her. They'd been nothing of the sort, of course, but it hadn't mattered. Things had been simpler then.
Now she watched him fuss with the zipper and sleeves, and felt her heart ache a little. Jackson Banes gave her a quick, knowing look, and then pointed with his chin at the Topkick, whose door was still open, Ironhide having thoroughly assumed his disguise. "You came in that?" She nodded. "Nice. Must be a good friend."
"Uh, yeah. He is. I mean, Will Lennox is – he's a friend. Army guy." Mikaela paused. God, she was babbling! "He let me borrow him. It." She felt her face heating as she silently cringed. Her dad, however, only smiled slightly.
"'Him,' is it?" he repeated, and laid an arm about her shoulders as he began moving toward the Autobot that was patiently imitating a truck. He gave Ironhide a quick, appraising once over, reached up and laid a hand on a smokestack. "These aren't standard with the make."
"Will's into customizing," Mikaela lied glibly, and before she could stop herself, asked, "You've been keeping up with the new models?"
"Library's got a subscription to Car and Driver," he replied, just a little coolly. "Had to do something to pass the time inside." He took a walk around the truck, apparently assessing its merits, and Mikaela gently pursed her lips when she saw him pause and frown, reaching out to brush fingers over the sigil imprinted across the tailgate. But he didn't comment on it, just looked up at her and said, "Let's get outta here, huh?"
"Right." Mikaela climbed back into Ironhide's cab, and after just a split second's hesitation, hit the automatic locks so her father could join her. Once they were both settled, Mikaela stuck the key into the ignition and twisted. Ironhide's engine sprang instantly to life – so far, so good. She put the truck in reverse and carefully backed out of the parking spot, moved into drive and headed out of the lot and down the road toward civilization.
"So," she said, as she came to a stop at a stop sign, "I thought we could try for a motel once it gets close to evening. I brought some of your things – " Mikaela gestured to the small duffel bag in the back "– and there are a couple of restaurants I saw on the way..."
"Sounds good," he replied, reaching back to snag the bag and draw it up into his lap so he could look through it.
"There's a Denny's or a Chili's, and I think there was a Panda Express, too –"
"Doesn't matter to me," he interrupted, still looking through her selection of shirts.
Mikaela drew a breath. "Okay," she said after a minute. And he must have heard it in her voice, because he stopped his rifling about and sighed, staring down at his hands a moment, before he said quietly:
"Just as long as it's not here."
Mikaela nodded at this, and gave herself a bit of a shake. Not here, she thought. Of course. She flicked the turn signal, then glanced down the road. Not that there was anyone about at this time of day, but habit was soothing. Besides, while Ironhide had agreed that she could actually drive him once her father was in his interior, in order to keep up appearances, she hardly thought he would consent to being made to roll out to get broadsided by oncoming traffic...
"Baby." She blinked, glanced over at her father, who was staring at her, an odd, unidentifiable emotion brimming in his eyes that made her heart beat a little quicker.
"Yeah?" she asked, a little breathlessly, though she tried not to show it. Maybe, though, he heard that, too, for he suddenly became preoccupied with fumbling a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, shaking one gently out the top as he said:
"Nothing. Just, uh," he glanced back up, filter between his lips and she found herself staring at his hands, at tar-stained fingers clenching the box as he continued: "I've been waiting to see you on the outside since the day I got here. And I'm – " He broke off, and she felt his eyes slide from her face to the field along the road a moment, before he shook himself slightly and turned back. "Well," he said, with a faint smile as he reached over to pinch her arm gently, "you look great, kiddo. Better than even six years apart can paint. And you're driving, even!"
Mikaela gave him a close-mouthed smile, nodding, and he returned them both. "Yeah." He pushed a hand through his hair and looked once more out at the horizon. "Yeah," he repeated after a beat, taking the unlit cigarette from his mouth, tapping it distractedly against his knee.
After a moment, when nothing more was forthcoming, Mikaela glanced once more left, then pulled onto the main road and away from the prison. She resisted the urge to watch it fade in the rear-view mirror; she thought her father did, too. Not that there would have been much 'fading into the distance' in any case. There would be no dramatic lingering of the guard towers and fencing, nor any long, lonely road – not in Norco. Wide, palm-lined, and (especially) closed streets of tract housing greeted them, and as the sun climbed up the sky, suburbia swallowed them in its forgetful embrace.
After the phone call, she had needed to think. She had needed things to stop for awhile, and Bumblebee had obliged. Under a dully glowing street lamp, on a less traveled road, she and Sam had sat quietly together on the curb. After a time, though, Sam had stirred and spoken.
"So he's really coming home. Guess Simmons didn't screw him over after all."
"Yeah. I guess not," Mikaela had said, staring at the blacktop beneath her sneakers. She could feel her boyfriend hovering uncertainly over her.
"Well, this is... good. This is good news, right? I mean, I know you've missed him," he'd said, nervously spinning out the words, and Mikaela had smiled just a little. That was Sam – mouth going a mile a minute, maybe more, when the going got tough. Tough and awkward, and Mikaela had pursed her lips, closing her eyes a moment before she'd looked sideways at him, and asked:
"Yeah?" Nerves pulled his voice up a notch, too.
"Do you think," she'd said, and looked him then full in the face, "your dad and mom would want to meet him?" He'd blinked, then:
"Sure. They like you, they'd want to meet your folks – met your grandma already." Brown eyes had been wide and guileless, but she'd caught that brief hesitation, and sighed inwardly.
"It's all right," she'd said, and hadn't been completely untruthful, or so she liked to think. "You don't have to pretend."
"No, really, they'd be fine ab – "
That time, she had sighed, and loudly, as she'd turned on him and said forcefully: "Sam. I said it's all right. You don't need to worry, I won't be bringing him by or anything."
That had shut him up, at least for a minute or two. A low, electronic croon and worried rumble of engine, however, had broken the silence, and both she and Sam had glanced behind themselves at 'Bee, who'd dropped them off at the curbside to talk, then transformed and taken himself off, down into the culvert that ran beneath the road. He'd stood across the gap, leaning a shoulder against the bridge, lights out, arms crossed and head down, listening unobtrusively.
Now, though, bright blue eyes lit up the darkness across the way, and she'd seen how his panels had been drawn back and tense, their Autobot friend and guardian reacting, apparently, to the rather palpable aura of discomfort between his two human charges. And that had been just the straw too many. Standing, Mikaela had beckoned 'Bee to join them.
"I've gotta get home," she'd said, abrupt but unable to care much in that moment. "Grandma Lori's gonna need to know." She'd shaken her head, ignoring the looks Sam and 'Bee were giving her. "And I've got to get a ride somehow."
Central Valley passes on a rush of hot wind and blurred, green-striped brown. Mikaela, sitting on the passenger side of the cab, with the window rolled down and one knee pulled up to her chest, closes her eyes and lets the sun and air play over her face and through her hair. After a moment, she cracks them open once more and glances at the expressionless 'Will Lennox' across the cab. Ironhide's holo-avatar says nothing, keeps its eyes on the road, and she turns her face back into the wind, reassured in her choice.
She could've asked anyone. Bumblebee had flat out offered – and Sam had been quick to assure her that his parents would understand loaning 'his' car out to her. For that matter, she could have asked Ratchet – Hummers not dedicated to emergency service weren't so hard to find. Even Optimus, she thinks, might have been willing if she'd really wanted him to, and if she'd come up with an explanation of how she'd come to be taking a semi across state that was worth rearranging his diplomatic schedule for.
But she hadn't – hadn't wanted their help, that is. For all that she likes and trusts every one of them more than she does most people, there are some things you can't trust some friends to do. And so she'd gone to Ironhide, who, when he'd heard her out, and just because he wasn't 'Bee or Ratchet or Prime, had asked nothing more of her than when to pick her up and whether he would need to keep his avatar in place the whole time.
They've been on the road since eight thirty, and Mikaela has been staring out the window in silence the while, looking for something she knows not what. She's made this trip before, and the view from the window is much the same, save that everything seems smaller, now, ordinary, even a little run down. The dread is different, though, and she grimaces slightly, feeling Grandma Lori's breakfast sit leadenly in her stomach...
She's gone with him to work before, but never so far. It will take two days, down and back, her father tells her. One day in the city, maybe two, and then they'll go home.
"How come we have to go all the way down there?" she asks.
"Because Andy's brother needs some help with a job, and that means we gotta go on a business trip," he replies, and reaches over to ruffle her hair, grinning in that way he has of frowning without seeming to. He's gotten real good at it since Mom went back to the hospital... "We'll meet up with Jose and Andy's brother, get a few things settled and moved out, then be on our way."
"Will the water be back on when we get home?"
"Pretty soon afterward, baby doll. They'll be able to come fix it. But you'll get to stay in a motel in the mean time," he says. "Room service twenty four seven and no plumbing problems."
"Do I get to see Jose and Andy's brother?"
"Maybe. We'll see."
She thinks for a minute, then asks: "Will Carl be there, too?"
Her dad doesn't like that question, she can tell, and so holds her breath. But he just breathes out deeply, and says, "Dunno. Andy didn't say. But if he is, just you stay away, all right? Carl ain't got a lotta sense sometimes."
It's true, he doesn't. But Mikaela likes him anyway, though she'll do as her dad says. She still gets scared sometimes, thinking of how she'd been sure, sure her dad would kill Carl, he'd shouted and screamed and knocked him around so much for taking her with him to knock over that 7-11 that one time.
But speaking of Carl, she can't help but ask: "Dad?"
"Do we have a good plan for getting out?"
He looks over at her, not smiling, not frowning, just looking at her, then all of a sudden, he snakes an arm around her shoulder and pulls her to his side, pressing her head against his shoulder.
"Yeah," he tells her, "yeah, we got a plan. Don't worry, Mikki, we're just gonna do the job, and we'll be home before you know it."
It has been six years since he told her that, and though Mikaela had gone home with her grandmother on a Greyhound bus, her father hadn't come home at all.
But he will tomorrow, she thinks, as she opens her eyes to glance again at the clock. Almost noon. Almost time for a quick rest stop. She looks out the window at the idle cows, complacently swishing their tails as cars and semis roar by. Same cows, same road, same feeling of things to come wrong – only she is different.
Maybe, she thinks, feeling her heart speed. Maybe...
They didn't end up stopping for lunch. Neither of them were hungry, or so they each said, and so they'd just kept going, heading west toward the Five. But when the signs had started turning up, and Mikaela had carefully begun merging over toward the designated lanes, her father had said suddenly: "Forget the Valley. Let's keep going west – we can pick up PCH."
And so they had, and the ocean lay before them now, a hot, blue glare, with Santa Monica at their backs. To either side, the signs proclaimed, lay Highway One – Pacific Coast Highway. Mikaela followed it north as it hugged the coast, waiting through traffic, while her unwitting father played with the radio settings, finally settling on a classic rock station.
For a few moments, he said nothing, shifting about in the seat a bit. But then: "What?" he asked her.
"I'm sorry?" Mikaela raised her brows, glancing at him quickly, before turning her eyes back to the road.
"You don't like this station?" her dad asked.
"No, it's fine."
"'Cause you wrinkled your nose – kinda like when your mom made you eat lima beans."
"Oh, no, that's not – I was just thinking of my friend," Mikaela explained. "He's not so much into rock."
"I can't do another day of classical radio," her father replied fervently.
"He's not into classical, either."
"Actually," she continued, "he's not really much into anything except this super glitchy techno."
"This your army friend, Will?"
"Yeah, 'Will'," Mikaela replied, and felt Ironhide's engine rev slightly, the vibration palpable through his frame. Her father frowned a bit.
"Will might want to make time for a tune-up. Engine shouldn't rev like that when you're not accelerating," he said.
"Yeah, I've been telling him that," Mikaela replied, hoping Ironhide would take the hint. Then, more hesitantly: "You remember that? Mom making me eat lima beans?"
Her father snorted, leaning back in the seat as he hung an arm out the window. "'Course I do," he said, and something about his voice made her tense, but he was watching the sky above the low cliffs that stood over the shore side road, and she couldn't see his face as he finished, "Just like yesterday."
Mikaela bit her lip, changing lanes before she spoke again, and quietly. "It wasn't yesterday, Dad."
Despite the noise of traffic and wind, she heard him sigh: "I know."
It had been well past midnight when her phone had gone off. Mikaela, who had been lying in bed, sleeplessly staring at the ceiling, had started, then nearly fallen over herself in the scramble to get to the phone that was still in her purse, which she'd hung from the doorknob on the back of the door. But it hadn't been a call – it had been a text message.
Don't worry, it had read, you won't be paying for the conversation. Mikaela had sighed as she'd noted the number – 'Bee, of course. Reply if you're awake, had come the next message.
Sinking down to sit with her back braced against the door, Mikaela had put her head in one hand, and with the other, texted back: You're scrap metal tomorrow!
There had been a slight delay, then Bumblebee had answered: Sorry to wake you, but we need to talk – without Sam.
That had gotten her attention. Brow knitting, she had quickly scrolled through the letters and sent: Why?
Because it's about your father, had come the dread response. Mikaela had hesitated a long moment before she'd made herself punch in the question:
What about him?
You know that I am Sam's guardian, and my duty is to protect him at all costs, the message had scrolled across the screen. Although I have not been charged with the same duties towards you, I owe you a debt for Mission City, Mikaela. Beyond that, I would not wish to see a friend come to any harm.
At that, Mikaela had frowned, then looked at her alarm clock: three thirty in the morning. She'd closed her eyes, rubbing tiredly at them. It had been an unsettling evening: the news from her father, the strange and uncomfortable conversation with Sam, and then telling her grandmother about it all... I can't deal with this right now, she'd thought, and so had texted back:
'Bee, what's the problem?
I have investigated as far as I was able the particulars of your father's case, and I need you to answer a question and answer it honestly.
And she'd waited and waited for the next question, which stubbornly refused to appear. She'd sighed. Apparently, impatience hadn't made it through the ether. So:
That time, the lag had been minimal and then 'Bee's question had blinked into being:
Is your father a threat to you or to Sam?
Mikaela had stared at the screen for a long time, though exhaustion had gone the way of fairy gold by daylight. Was her father a threat to her or Sam? Mikaela? the disembodied had query flashed anew, and after another moment, she'd demanded:
Why would you even ask that?
Because, had come the answer, in stark black lettering, you were afraid earlier this evening.
It had been tempting, ever so tempting, to shut the phone off right there and pretend she'd never gotten that message. The problem was that Mikaela had been fairly certain Bumblebee wouldn't buy that excuse, and even if he had, there would have been nothing to prevent him from asking again until the lie showed for what it was. And to some questions, no answer was still an answer, of sorts...
So she'd texted back: He's not a threat.
Then she'd turned the phone off, tossing it onto the floor. And she had sat there with her back to the door, her head in her hands for some minutes more, elbows balanced on bare, upraised knees, before she'd climbed to her feet and made her way back to her bed. There, she'd lain sprawled on her back atop the covers, listening to the comforting sounds of neighbors' televisions, to the rumble of traffic down the road, and the dogs barking after trucks. But the familiar night noises had not lulled her to sleep; rather, she'd felt as though her thoughts were caught in the wake of the cars, tumbling haplessly from past to present, dragged along towards the uncertain future.
After the arrest and the trial, after her dad went to jail, there had been days when she would pretend that he was still there. In the morning, she would come downstairs and tell herself he was at work already. After school, she would pretend she was waiting for him to come pick her up. She would sit at the table at home and do her homework, and imagine that her father would be home soon for dinner, and that afterwards, she could help him while he puttered about on the car. Maybe he'd even take her out to one of the dealer lots, and they could ogle and crawl around undercarriages with flashlights after everyone else was gone.
And near the end, when her mother had stopped talking, and hadn't even been awake any more, Mikaela had waited for her father to come and stand by her, for her father to come and take her mother's hand and Mikaela's smaller one, and hold on until it was time for them to leave the hospital again. She had been eleven; she had known she should have been beyond such games, but she'd held forth in make believing 'til it hurt, 'til her grandmother's hands had slipped onto her shoulders and there just wasn't any more pretending to be done.
She'd tried ever since to put pretending away. It didn't do anyone any good, and her father would have expected it of her.
"You're my brave girl – gotta keep your chin up, hey?" he'd said, before they'd taken him away and left her to Grandma Lori. "Keep your eyes open, kiddo, and if anyone says a thing, you spit in their eye, hear?"
And she had wanted to, because she'd always been daddy's little girl. But dammit she wanted to believe it was all okay, just like everyone did, too! That she was okay, just like everyone else. Maybe she'd learned how to make believe too well, because "people" had mothers who died and fathers who left, right? On the back of omission and some creative explanation of her eleventh summer, it needed only a little lipstick, a couple furtive runs to thrift stores, a couple hours lost in her headphones and she could pass – she looked like a normal girl, even had normal-girl problems. Like nail polish and cramps and boys like Trent and a grandmother who "just doesn't understand."
But normalcy had never lasted. She always felt just slightly off, because reality had an irritating habit of bursting in and ruining it. It wasn't even the extraordinary things – not that there ever had been any, until lately – that did it. It was always little things: Darlene would babble on just a second too long about not getting those shoes or someone else would complain about getting beat in some pissing contest, and she'd start to feel it – like a fist in her stomach, squeezing 'til the life drained out of the illusion that any of it mattered. Then she had to go to the women's room or make some retort and excuse and get away, just get away, before she said something that would really blow her cover...
Mikaela had dragged her fingers through her hair, tugging at tangles, then run her hand over the cool of her pillowcase, and she'd looked at the clock once more. Quarter 'til four, and she'd known she wouldn't be sleeping that night, most likely.
It isn't fair! she'd thought, rolling onto her stomach to gather her pillow into her arms. Grandma Lori, when she'd heard Mikaela out earlier about going by herself to pick up her father, had said not one word. She'd just gotten the little tea tin down from the pantry, with its little stash of money, and given it over to her.
"But... you're not - ?" Mikaela had stammered, confused.
"There are things a young lady has to do, if she's raised right," her grandmother had answered her. "And if he's going to come home, he needs to see that – he needs to see that you can hold your head high, because you're not that girl he nearly ruined."
She'd managed to convince herself – the part of herself not connected to that anxious flutter somewhere between her heart and her stomach, at any rate – that her grandmother had been right for about six hours before an Autobot armed with concern and total disregard for cell phone payment plans came calling: You were afraid earlier this evening.
Friends armed with truth were dangerous friends. "Sins are like family, dear – they always come home to you, and then there's penance to be done," her grandmother was fond of saying. Mikaela had sighed and checked the clock one more time: three fifty-three. Heaving another sigh, she'd squeezed her eyes shut. It would be a long night...
She wakes with a start, expecting to find herself dangling from a robotic bridge, the air throbbing with helicopter rotors, threatening to tear her from Sam's grip. Only it hadn't been Sam when she'd looked up, but a diabolically grinning Reginald Simmons...
'Bye-bye, sweet cheeks!
Mikaela grits her teeth and shakes the last of the nightmare from her head, then looks about at the clean, safe interior of Ironhide's Topkick mode, and then out the half-open window for a road sign. She sees little houses dotting the field, and miles of greenery, but no signs. She checks the clock: twenty-five after two. Last she knew, it was nearly noon.
"Where are we?" she asks, and 'Lennox' answers:
"A stretch of highway just past Williams."
Williams. She stares hard into the side view mirror, as if it might keep an image of the town, though it is long gone from sight. In the mirror, she sees only fields and shacks slipping inexorably past the sleek, gleaming black that is Ironhide's steady reflection, like a line of night that won't give to day. The countryside pauses a moment as a point on the edge of that dark horizon before disappearing. "Did we stop anywhere, while I was out?"
"No," Ironhide replies. There is a slight pause, then: "Do you need to stop?"
Mikaela shakes her head, says, "No. Unless you need to…?"
"Not yet," the Autobot replies, and that settles the matter. They lapse back into silence, with nothing but the wind and the road passing and the thrum of Ironhide's engine to fill it. Mikaela finds herself thinking of her dream, of past terror distorted by present fears, by failings that she'd thrust aside, but which had mushroomed under her neglect and now clotted up everything before that night on the underbelly of a bridge. Simmons was a blot on memory, like one of those leering skulls in old paintings their tenth grade history teacher had shown them: you couldn't see what they were unless you looked at them the right way, which was really the odd way, and made the rest of the picture distort and change.
Simmons made a lot of things bend, including the truth – including herself, except that uneasy as she was, after the fact, with how she'd acted that night, it was more as if she and he were two curved mirrors that between themselves showed a clear image. Two lies, two wrongs, apparently did come out to a right in some sense, it seemed – or at least, they showed something true about her, showed her who she was when she was scared.
And since Bee's unexpected phone call, she's been made to see that she's been fearful for a long time. A very long time, and she wonders why she never noticed – why nobody ever noticed. Or maybe they had, but nobody had said anything. Nobody, except 'Bee that night, a week ago now. Maybe it's some superior perception on his part; maybe it's some robotic 'thing', or maybe it's because he and the others are still the aliens and don't know any better than to say what they see sometimes...
"Ironhide?" she asks, after a little while.
"Yes?" he answers.
"Have you ever had a friend – or maybe a brother – who did something he really kind of regretted later?" And she fights a wince, because that's the oldest trick in the book, and no one is ever fooled by it. Ironhide, after processing this question, gives a huff that sounds like a muffler gone bad, but replies, somewhat brusquely:
"We've been fighting a war, girl." Nothing more than that, because he's the sort who prefers not to belabor the obvious. And there's a comforting literalness to that reply: asked, he answers the question and goes no further. He's not one to probe. Ironhide, of all of the Autobots, lacks a sense of curiosity. Possibly deliberately, who knows?
And so: "Right," she answers, and falls silent again.
But it is a different silence this time. 'Lennox' still isn't looking at her, but she feels the pressure of invisible eyes, or maybe those are EM waves that make her skin itch. Whatever, she knows she is watched, that the ruse didn't really take – that that literalness is also a way out. Yes, Ironhide has friends with regrets, and she is as much one of them as any of the 'bots on base. And so he'll keep her secrets like he would those of his squad, and watch for the cracks in her armor so that he can avoid running up against them when they appear.
Some might have taken his evasiveness – blunt and obvious as it is – for a brush off. But Mikaela does not: strange as it may seem, Ironhide, despite his love for his cannons, is generally innocent of intending to wound. In war, he aims to kill; in work, to get the job done well; in friendships, to protect. Otherwise, he keeps himself to himself, except when he doesn't, and then he's forthright in his likes and dislikes. Not in order to be hurtful, but he doesn't seem to 'get' the vast, duplicitous middle ground between outspoken and silent, whereas Mikaela knows it well, even if she can be one side or the other of that ground, too, and many think she's always at extremes. Just not on some topics, for where they're at stake, when silence, artful or otherwise, breaks, she can get hurtful.
Like telling off Sam after Simmons had mauled her in the car.
Like making Simmons strip, because if he'd taken aim at her fear for her father, he'd ended up hitting her fear of her father: the fear that hadn't ever let her take his advice and spit in Simmons's eye or anyone else's without lying about him first. It had been an accidental hit to a buried hurt, but once that hurt had been discovered, Simmons had gone after her. Worse, he hadn't even done it for the sake of Sector Seven's pursuit of the Autobots. His eyes on her, and his gleeful talking up of her father's record and of her own in front of someone she'd wanted for a friend – all that hadn't been to make her talk about 'Bee and Prime and the others. Sure, Simmons couldn't have threatened her father without exposing that record, but he hadn't needed to mention her own. That he had brought her own record in just showed up the primal fact of the whole affair:
Simmons would've used her past and her dad's against her any way he could, regardless of his mission, because he'd enjoyed feeling like he'd scored on her.
And so she'd used her dad just as much as Simmons had, because she could – and because she'd wanted Simmons to know where he'd stood at that moment, and to feel it, feel just a little of what she'd felt in that car.
Strike that, she'd wanted him to feel it just as bad as she had, and worse, if possible.
That ought to be a comfort to her dad, all right, if ever he found out, she thinks sarcastically. She isn't a car thief, no, but Simmons gave her proof positive that night that yes, despite fears and appearances, she's still daddy's little girl. In the worst way:
"Time to face facts," Simmons had said, and the Gotcha! gleam in his eyes told against those words harboring any defeated defiance; "You're a criminal. It's in your gene pool."
It would be ironic, except that it's not really funny. Like, at all. Because Jackson Banes is coming home, and she's got it in her head now that she owes him something: it starts with an "S" and ends in "-alvation", and goes with a lot of other words she remembers from Sunday homilies. Words that tell a tale of death and suffering – redemption isn't free – and somehow, she'd rather do Mission City over again than face her father.
She wonders then if Ironhide has any idea. Probably he does. Probably he has at least as much of an idea as Bumblebee's been able to form, because Bumblebee wouldn't let one of his cohort walk into something like this without warning. Whatever he'd gotten out of that late night conversation the other week, he would have passed it to Ironhide. All's fair in love and war, and she supposes that, in some way, this is both.
So probably, Ironhide is being as careful as he knows how to be around her, which means leaving her her secrets, because what does he really know about humanity? Where problems exist, he deals best when he can deal simply with them anyhow. Otherwise, he prefers to keep his distance.
She appreciates that, in a way – it's a strange sort of sensitivity, from someone you wouldn't necessarily expect it from, but Ironhide's polite, too, if you know what to look for. Mikaela had asked him for help knowing full well what she could expect, for he is a good friend, a loyal friend. As good and as loyal as 'Bee, and easier for this ride, and that's what she wants, isn't it?
The motel sat on the corner of a street that fanned out into a too-cheerful strip mall some thirty miles north of Simi Valley. They might have gone farther that night, but by the time the sun set and they'd cleared the worst of the Southland traffic, several hours of uncomfortable silence had worn them down and left them hungry as well. So they pulled into the motel lot, got a room and dumped their luggage, such as it was, into it, and then headed down to the mall to see what their dining options were.
They settled on a Taco Bell in the end, since it was the least expensive. As Mikaela and her father set their trays down on a table in the corner, he gave her a slight smile and said, apologetically, "Sorry about the cheap eats."
Mikaela just shrugged as she carefully tore a strip from her quesadilla. "It's no problem."
Her father grunted, took a bite of his burrito, but then continued to press the point: "'Cause I'd take you out somewhere nicer, but all my cards are expired." A beat, then: "Guess the card sharks didn't get my forwarding address!"
Which was an uncomfortable joke at best, given that he'd walked into jail with the clothes on his back and six dollars and some change in his pocket, because the whole point of that disastrous trip south had been to get the bills paid. Just keep it low key, she told herself.
"Seriously, Dad, it's not a problem," Mikaela replied therefore, playing it as cool as she could."Taco Bell is fine. There's one near school – we go there all the time."
"Huh. Do you?" he asked, picking at the nachos set between them. For a little while, neither spoke, content to take the edge off of hunger and let the tension unknot itself a little more. But at length, her father nodded at her, and asked: "So – who's 'we'? And how's school?"
Mikaela hastily swallowed, taking a quick sip of her diet coke. "School's fine – it's great," she said, and shrugged slightly. "I mean, you know, it's like always. Nothing too exciting."
"You're what? A junior?"
"Senior, since last month," she corrected him.
"Mm." Her father eyed her as he popped another chip in his mouth. And he quirked a brow, as he asked: "And you've got friends to go to lunch with?"
"Yeah. Mostly some of the guys," she replied, then, after a hesitation, admitted: "Well, mainly two. There are a few others." Which was vague enough to avoid having to mention that the 'few others' were robotic aliens who'd gotten her embroiled in an interstellar war. Sam and Miles, at least, were mostly harmless.
"They treat you right?" her father inquired, and that slight edge to his voice made her grateful that she'd ditched Trent hard and fast, and that the rest of the jock crowd had largely gone with him once she'd shown up with Sam. That meant she was able to say, with perfect honesty:
"Yeah, they do." He looked at her a moment, then nodded, said:
"I'm working, too," she continued, talking to fill the void that threatened. Her father cocked his head at her. "At Casey's. It's full time – well," she said, "it's just for a few months. Mostly it's handing people what they need, changing tires, that sort of thing."
"Casey McDowell," her father said reflectively. "I remember him. Always ran a clean joint."
She thought he might have winced a little at that, but if so, it was quick, and he asked only: "You can do more than change tires. You gonna move up, you think?"
Mikaela shrugged. "I don't know. It's a summer job," she said, and left silent the fact that Casey had needed some persuading to take on the daughter of a known car-thief, whose mechanical skills were based on her father's training. He'd hired her on after her erstwhile juvenile case officer had vouched for her, but kept her away from clients' personal information and the like. And on the shop floor there was always someone on his regular crew who could keep an eye on her, and who did the bulk of the jobs. It was unlikely that that would change before she began school again.
Her father no doubt heard an omission, because he asked, too lightly, "They giving you problems?"
"No," she answered.
"I can handle them, Dad," she replied firmly, in a voice that left no room for objections. Even as she said it, a weird feeling of dissonance struck, like hitting her elbow on the corner of past and future, and the bruised look that colored her father's surprise told of a similar collision. He absorbed this reply, and the tone, then said finally:
"Guess you can." With a sigh, Mikaela lowered her eyes and stirred the ice in her soda with the straw.
"Do you," she asked after a minute, changing the subject, "have any plans? For work, I mean?"
"I was thinking dishwasher repair."
Mikaela blinked. "Dishwashers?" she repeated, confused.
"Yeah. They're dumber machines than cars, but they break a lot, and they're harder to offload if you steal 'em, so I figure that'll even out a felony GTA on the application," her father said, and though he smiled as he said it, that bruised undertone seemed to spread, deepen.
"Right," Mikaela replied, and managed to laugh a little at the painful joke. "That's... that's great, Dad."
Her father grunted, finished the last of his burrito and rose, drink in hand. "I'm gonna shower and turn in early," he declared, looking out the window at the parking lot. "Been a long day." Upon hearing which, Mikaela began hurriedly stacking their trays and shoving wrappers and plastic onto them. Her father, however, held up his hands in a braking gesture. "Whoa – no rush or anything."
"I was almost done anyway," Mikaela lied. It wasn't that she didn't trust him; but the thought of him leaving her sight to go off on his own...it just seemed like a bad idea, somehow.If her father sensed that she wasn't being completely truthful, however, he said nothing. He just waited until she'd deposited the remains of their dinner in the trash bin, then held the door for her and fell in step at her side.
In silence, the two of them set out over the blacktop, feeling the day's heat radiating up through the soles of their shoes. Mikaela walked with her arms crossed over her chest, and her father had his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, bomber jacket hanging between one arm and his body despite the warmth. A little sliver of moon was hanging overhead, just above the smear of light on the horizon where the sun had been.
On Saturday nights like this, back home, Bumblebee would sometimes let Sam and her sit on top of his hood and talk as they stared up at the stars, his radio playing softly if he didn't choose to join them in the conversation. They'd watch for satellites – 'Bee always found the most, obviously – and fantasize about what might be out there.
Probably, Sam and 'Bee were out there on the ridge at the base even now, or else parked in the Witwiky driveway, though she couldn't help but think that tonight, they weren't likely talking about alien worlds or Autobots on their way to Earth. And of a sudden, the last thing she wanted to do was spend still more time cooped inside a box with her father. She'd spent most of the day sharing a cab which, though spacious for a truck, was still no more than five feet across, and she couldn't remember many car rides that had been less comfortable.
Which was why, as they were approaching their motel room, she began digging through her purse. By the time her father began fishing for his key card, she had her cell phone out and was pretending to check for messages.
"You know, I think I'll make a couple phone calls first," she said. "My reception's never that great indoors."
"All right," her father agreed, turning to unlock the door. Mikaela was still playing with her phone when he called to her, and she looked up to find him leaning in the doorway, their unlit room at his back.
"Yeah, Dad?" she asked. He said nothing at first, just stared, until Mikaela began to feel the heat rise to her cheeks, and she was glad suddenly that it was dark enough he couldn't see her face any more than she could see his. His next words, therefore, made her start slightly:
"You look," he said at length, and apropos of nothing, "a lot like your mother now, you know that?" And then, before she could respond, he abruptly said, "Your mom had a hard time with me, Mikki."
"Dad..." Mikaela protested, though she trailed uncomfortably off, uncertain what to say. Her father, however, would have none of it, however abbreviated.
"Just listen a minute," he replied, a bit brusque with impatience. "I'm trying to tell you something – been thinkin' about it awhile now. I loved your mom, Mikki, I did – I know you know that. But hell, we were barely makin' it most of the time. Problem with cars, is they're an expensive hobby, even if you work on 'em for a living. And she wasn't happy about my other jobs, but then she got sick, we had you to worry about, and the bills... She couldn't keep up with where I got the money from, but she had to know. Shouldn't have taken up with me, but your mom... was somethin' special. She really was."
He paused, and Mikaela bit her lip, awash in conflicted feeling. It was something her grandmother had said a lot when Mikaela had been younger, but somehow, hearing that judgment from her father... felt different. Devastatingly different, though she couldn't quite explain why. At length, though, her father shook his head, changing topics suddenly. "You're what, now? Going on eighteen?"
"Next April," she confirmed in a rather subdued voice. Her father grunted, gave a soft, fond snort.
"April, yeah. April nineteenth, nineteen eighty-nine," he murmured, the sudden proud smile audible in his voice. "Nine months, then, and you're for yourself. Makes things easier."
"What's easier, Dad?" Mikaela demanded sharply, confused, but not liking the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that robbed his next words of all surprise.
"Mikki, sweetheart, it's all over you," her father replied, gently. "I'm embarrassing to you. Not surprising: you're doing a hell of a lot better than I was when I was your age – got a job, going to school, got decent friends." A pause, then a nod at Ironhide, as he revised: "More than decent. You're on your way to a good life. Your ex-con old man don't fit into that." A pause, then: "If you wanna stay out here, that's fine. Don't need to apologize for it."
So saying, her father straightened and went within, closing the door quietly behind him. That left Mikaela standing there at the curbside, phone all but forgotten in her hand. From beneath the line of the curtains on their window, she saw lamp light blaze to life, and faintly heard a door close as her father apparently did exactly as he'd said he intended. In something of a daze, she mechanically returned the phone to her purse and walked a few steps from the sidewalk, running a hand back over her hair, pulling at it a bit. Thoughts whirled in a chaotic jumble, and the one constant was a refrain that would've done Ratchet proud in the swearing department, but which didn't help her at all...
Abruptly, she turned back to the door, fumbling for her key card. Once inside, she found a pad of note paper in the drawer of one of the nightstands, and scribbled off a quick note:
Went for a walk. Be back later. Mikaela.
Leaving it on the bed where her father had laid his jacket, she set her purse on the table, jammed the key card into her pocket, and departed at a determined pace, heading off down the street, paralleling the highway.
From the curb, one watching would've seen her silhouette shrink, then fade into the night, showing indistinctly whenever she passed beneath a streetlight. Cars passed occasionally on the highway, but other than the sounds of a few televisions going on in shut-up motel rooms, nothing disturbed the stillness of the parking lot.
Not, at any rate, until Mikaela's form ceased to show to human eyes. For a few seconds, nothing happened so far as human senses could've told, but of a sudden, an engine purred softly to life. The young man sitting in the driver's seat of the huge black Topkick hadn't ever opened its doors, but he did back it out of its spot, executing a quick, tight turn that no vehicle that size should've been able to manage. Then the truck, lights out and engine still running quietly, began to move slowly down the street, disappearing into the night more swiftly, even, than the girl it followed.
Author's notes: Titles of everything: are shamelessly frivolous musical rip-offs, yes, they are. If you are related to Paul McCartney, please consider not ever telling him about this. If you're related to The Prodigals... I would hope a band recommended as 'great to drink with' wouldn't be interested in feeling violated in their copyrights for this.
"Time to face facts. You're a criminal. It's in your gene pool." - See punitive strip scene in Transformers.
The CRC does have some buildings with red tile roofs. Whether it has a big sign – no idea. Google image searching failed me on that account. But hey, we're writing about giant robots – realism is so last century!