Only one road passes through Serenity, a two-lane paved ribbon everybody calls Old County Six. We pedal west along it, riding right down the center over the faded broken line. There's little fear of meeting traffic in either direction. All decent highways cross New Mexico well to the south. If you hit Serenity, chances are you're lost.
As we bike on, I spot the gully that was the site of the fossil hunting trip. I am now farther from home than I've ever been in my life. Can it really be this easy? You just jump on a bicycle and ride out of town? It seems like cheating somehow, breaking some overarching Law of the Way Things Are Supposed to Be. Yet here I am, just doing it. It's kind of exhilarating -- at least, I've never been so aware of the beating of my heart and the blood pumping through my veins.
I feel a little strange about not telling Dad. Not that I need his permission -- I'm thirteen years old. Besides, he never specifically said not to ride my bike out past the town limits. I'm not breaking any rules, but I know he'll be disappointed if he finds out about this. Face it: If I don't need to ask permission for this ride, how come I snuck my bike out of the garage? I try to push the thought from my head as I wheel the bike away.
I glance over my shoulder at Serenity -- the perfect rows of immaculate white homes, the swimming pools positioned on the lots like aquamarine postage stamps, the basketball hoops lined up like sentries, all lovingly set down amid the striking southwestern landscape. In this view I find my answer to the nagging question of how a person could spend thirteen years here without ever once setting foot outside the town proper. Why would I need to? When it comes to fun or comfort, we've got it all. We've got the stuff adults want too -- a great school and great jobs. We've got the three Essential Qualities of Serenity Citizens -- honesty, harmony, and contentment. We've heard about the bigger towns and -- even worse -- cities. They stink of garbage and everything's crumbling, and crime is so bad that nobody can trust anybody else. People spend their time in fear, hunkered down behind locked doors and alarm systems.
At the same time, it's almost startling how tiny the town is, even from this distance of barely a mile. If it wasn't for the factory, you wouldn't notice it unless you knew what to look for. I guess that's the Serenity Miracle our parents are always talking about -- that so much quality of life can be held in such a small package.
"How much farther?" I call ahead to Randy.
"Probably another twenty minutes."
After a bend in the road, a tall butte obscures the town altogether. It completes the feeling of being out there.
Randy doesn't seem to notice at all. "Look!" he shouts back at me, waving his arm to the right.
It's the sign Randy mentioned -- the one about leaving town. In contrast to spotless and impeccable Serenity, it's surprisingly faded and weather-beaten. I squint at the bottom, where the warning: No Gas Next 78 Miles has been tacked on.
I've done it. I've left town. I survey the rocky hills and scrub pines and brush. I don't know what to call this, but it's not Serenity anymore. After more than thirteen years, I'm officially Somewhere Else. And how does it make me feel?
To be honest, kind of scared. I've never done this before, never lost visual contact with my hometown. By the time I get to see this Alfa Romeo, I'll be so stressed out that I won't even be able to appreciate it. I'm over-thinking this whole business to the point where it's making me sick to my stomach.
Well, I'm not turning back. I made it this far, and Randy will never let me hear the end of it if I don't follow through.
But I really am sick -- and getting sicker. The nausea grows stronger, rising up the back of my throat. There's no way it's just from being nervous. This is something physical. What did I have for lunch today? I can't remember, but whatever it was, it's coming up, and soon. My stomach twists in a paralyzing cramp, and my head hurts too.
"What's with you, Eli?" Randy calls back in annoyance. "Running out of gas already?" His expression changes when he sees me. "Hey, are you okay?"
I've slowed down, although I hardly notice it. Only pure stubbornness keeps my legs pumping. I'm in agony, blinded by the kind of headache that lodges behind the eyes like a glowing coal, pulsating and doubling in intensity. The pain is unimaginable. It's not just a terrible thing; it's the only thing.
I'm not even aware of toppling off the bike until my chin strikes the road. Fire erupts on my forearms where they scrape the rough pavement. I see Randy kneeling over me, feel him shaking me, but I'm powerless to respond. I can only focus on one thought:
What happens next is so shocking, so bizarre, that I'm sure I'm imagining it, delirious with pain. A loud, rhythmic roar swells around Randy and me, and strong winds whip down on us. A dark shadow moves directly overhead, growing larger and larger as it descends. An enormous military-style helicopter settles on the road, its rotor buffeting us with air.
The hatch opens and out jump six men in identical indigo uniforms and wine-colored berets.
"Purple People Eaters!" Randy breathes.
Through a fog, I can barely make out the distinctive tunics of the Surety, the security force of the Serenity Plastic Works that doubles as the town police. It takes all the strength I have left to spread my arms to the rescuers.
"Help me," I whisper, wondering if they can even hear me over the thunder of the chopper.