#7 of Thin Paper Walls
05 - The Pursuit
The clock hadn't quite struck 8, and the race stood just short of the halfway mark, but behind the pit box it could've been called a congregation, like the crowd of media at the red carpet for the Academy Awards. This is where I mentally beat myself for taking the interstate instead of the numerous backroads, as now I had to cross the pitboxes of the 5 and 35. I had no direction to head. I just followed.
Crowds of furs; cameramen, reporters, journalists, newscasters, team members, the whole nine yards seemed to be interviewing every single member of Dak Rosco's and Christine Boyd's teams. Jerrod himself had scampered over to the 35's pitbox as well. Claustrophobic doesn't quite describe me, but having a severe hatred of large crowds does, so I got nudged to the bitter edge of my nerves as I elected to weave my way between everyone, trying my hardest not to bump into anyone or anything.
It took me the better part of five minutes to clear the crowd, and unfortunately I could not catch a sign or scent of Brandon. He had evaded my grasp. My ears flicked once as I tried to pick up the faintest sound of his voice.
Louis yelled at me from my left. He sat atop the concrete pit wall next to a few of the crew members of the 54. He sported a blank black T-shirt and well-groomed fur. Odd - must've been trying to make a good impression on someone. He waved at me and I waved back before I felt something hard slam against my head. I instantly fell to the concrete, pressing my paw to my head and groaning a little from the sharp rush of pain. I rose to a sitting position and clenched the place I had been hit a couple of inches from my ear. Not much damage inflicted, as I could easily rise back to my feet. I checked my right paw. No blood. Good sign.
I could give pause to my surroundings now; a couple of indistinct conversations about my flub, a few furs staring, a few laughing, and two or three trying to help me directly.
"Damn man! That camera got ya good!" Louis ran up to me and ruffled my hair, "You alright?"
"Damn, Jasper. I'm sorry! I didn't see you!" The cameraman said, "Are you okay?"
I breathed easily, "Yeah... yeah I'm okay. No sweat."
The brown-furred camera otter looked at me with urgency, "You sure you don't want me to call 9-1-1?"
I patted his shoulder, "Yes, I am sure. Thanks though."
It looked like he'd just dropped a fifty pound knapsack after a ten mile hike; relived as I'd ever seen someone. A tuft of head fluff fell in front of his face and he brushed it away with a paw before he continued to push the camera away.
Louis stepped back for a moment and watched this all unfold.
I took a tentative glance upward, noticing a different reporter standing less than a foot away from me with a microphone in her paw. I sighed and subconsciously read the network name off the microphone. PFIN. Public Furry Information Network; a radio network I actually had a shred of respect for, as they didn't always go for the top story; they went for the story that everyone else misses. In theory, this should make the fact that I respected them a tad ironic, considering that I alone had the story that everyone would forever miss.
"We're gonna wait for him to recover for a moment. That camera dinged him pretty hard." The female cross fox holding the microphone spoke into a headset, obviously communicating with her studio.
I scanned the perimeter as I recovered, rubbing my fuzzy head one more time. A busy pit road sat on my distant left, beyond the furs that had gathered around me to witness (not to mention video record) my accident. To my right, amidst a clearing from the crowd, stood a fence guarding the garage area. An autograph area on the infield was nearby, alongside an entrance area for fans.
The fox waved her short brown hair out of her eyes and nervously looked back to her small crew, obviously hating to put a burden on me. I didn't see it as a big deal; as much as I hated interviews, my showmanship all but obliged me to follow through with it. But in her defense, this fox probably did not possess psychic powers and knew me as someone notably impatient with media attention.
I managed a smile, "Heck, ask me whatever you like, I'm pretty fired up tonight." I tried to add a little spark (*cough* testosterone *cough*) to my voice for the mic.
"Well, first of all, are you alright?" She asked with a sweet smile, sincere but not overbearing, her thin lips drenched in lip gloss curving up in a crescent across her small fox muzzle. I drew a conclusion; surely a pot of gold in the form of a raise lied at the end of her rainbow.
"Am I dead?" I asked facetiously.
She laughed heartily as I gave her a false 'duh' look and then continued, "Naah! I'm fine. Just a flesh wound. It hurts, but it'll heal." I became unsure of where this burst of confidence had come from, but it was present nonetheless and I willed myself to take advantage of it.
"Alright, we're gonna take a moment, guys. Back to you in the studio." She obviously called back in the main broadcasters.
She backed up and asked one of her crewmembers to drop two small fold-up chairs that she had been carrying. She herself squatted down with the mic and the other crewmember set up a small radio receiver on a stand directly on her six.
"Thanks, guys. Ready?"
"Yep! 3... 2... 1... Live again."
"Alright. Here with Jasper Erickson again who has recovered from hitting his head on a camera a few moments ago. Sorry about that interruption. Jasper, television cameras found you in the pitbox for the 25 for most of the night. Is this indicative of anything? And if so, is there any truth to the rumors of Pierce expanding to a third team as speculated earlier in the year?" Something about this felt like it was coming from a true race fan, and not someone after a raise after all.
This sport thrived off rumors and silly season; who would be driving what for who and for how long with what kind of backing, basically. NAFSCAR fans love the idea of a new twist possibly lying at the end of the very next turn.
I had never been faced with answering a rumor so substantial before. Usually, my team owner would give me an idea of what to tell the media, but left unprepared, I had no ready answer and found myself forced to take a stab in the dark. I took the low road. "Maybe. Maybe not."
She paused for a moment, "Can you elaborate on that for us a little?" Her smile softened and her emerald eyes shimmered behind her large-framed prescription glasses.
"I..." Caught at the same fork in the road, so I again took the safe one, "Once I know something, you'll know something."
She knew trying to pry further would be useless, but her eyes stared me down like prey and made me want to crawl back a little, "Thank you Jasper. Jasper Erickson guys, the Countrywide Series' Rookie of the Year who finished fifth in points." She cut off her microphone and turned to face me again, not losing that smile.
She held out her paw which I gripped and shook confidently, tipping my head to her and smiling, keeping my ears upright.
"Name's Brandy. Brandy Scott. It's nice to finally meet you, Jasper. I'm a big fan of yours."
For someone as star-struck as this apparent rookie reporter for the sport was, she kept her composure well. She instantly earned a lot of respect from me, "Brandy?" I breathed, but then became unsure if it came naturally or if I was simply humoring her enthusiasm, "What a fabulous name." Wow. Could I sound any gayer?
Louis caught onto that and laughed almost menacingly from behind, showing that he hadn't died behind me.
Brandy blushed briefly before standing up and departing with her crew, giving me a long glance and a gesture before she left.
"Jasper! You got a girlfriend!" Louis joked... I hoped.
"What?!" I gave him a look like he was crazy. After all, he'd just said something rather implausible.
"Man, I'm just playin' with ya! I know how much you hate the media." He snickered a little and then stood beside me, patting me on the back. "But... hey, if you had a girlfriend, man... that'd change a lot about you, I think. It'd up your confidence, for sure. I think the pheromones would turn you into something a little more..."
I glared at him, "Macho?"
He immediately glanced at his cell phone, "Ahh, shoot fire! They only gave me ten minutes to come out here. I'm trying to get in touch with some Swift Cup team owners tonight, and I don't want to miss my chance, so call me over the offseason, okay?" He pulled me up from my chair and gave me a quick bro hug, "Later man! And thanks for an awesome year!"
"You bet, Louie! See ya round!" I did manage a halfhearted smile.
Despite my eventful evening thus far, all of this doesn't even cover the highlight of it. I strolled around the pit area watching the action for a good fifteen minutes before the pleasant aroma of hamburgers tempted me. I hadn't eaten since lunch, so I had become pretty famished over the course of my busy evening. I followed my nose to the infield and the source of the scent, my stomach growling. I found myself led to a burger stand under a large tent, and then stood in line behind a fur whose shirtless body screamed "biker" with the amount of tattoos and furdye, obviously waiting for his meal. He received his food a few seconds after, the dragon behind the counter thanking him before turning his attention to me.
"Jasper Erickson?" The lizard shot up from behind the counter, undoubtedly surprised by my presence, "Can I have your autograph, man?" He reached down behind the counter and pulled out a Nationwide Driver Card of me. The fact that Driver Cards of me even existed surprised me, let alone the concept that I had a male fan. He grabbed a pen out of his shirt pocket and tossed it across the counter to me.
I grinned at him and nodded, neatly signing my name in the white autograph space along the edge, and then I slowly slid it back across the counter to him, nodding in thanks.
He smiled, "Sweet, thank you!" He really did sound thankful, like I had made his day.
"You're welcome, Evan!" I read the name off his nametag.
He seemed star struck when I said his name, but he quickly regained his composure, "What can I get for you, Jasper?"
I gazed at the menu on a chalkboard behind him, studying the variety of burgers written there. If the smells were appetizing, then the menu descriptions were absolutely decadent. I licked my chops as I read on. After a few moments, I came to a decision, ordering a quarter-pound burger topped with cheese, pickles, mayonnaise, onions, extra ketchup, and banana peppers (Yum!). I reached into my pocket to grab my wallet, but got interrupted from behind.
"Put it on me!" Someone yelled to Evan.
I turned to the source of the smooth, somewhat familiar voice, and there he stood, approaching me from across the grassy infield clearing. The radiant tanuki (confirmed: a tanuki) I had painted a bullseye on with my mind this evening; Brandon Reese himself. I had to look up pretty dramatically to see his face, but he stood close enough that I could smell his strong musk underneath his cover-up cologne.
"I'm Brandon." He invited himself closer to me, and came within roughly sixteen inches, "It's nice to meet ya. Been meeting so many drivers lately it's crazy!" He exclaimed.
We shook paws. His pawshake as firm, confident, and poised as a business executive, almost as if he had a determination in him for nothing but the moment he was in. The wild fantasy made me feel truly special, until I gave way to the fact that it languished as a wild fantasy.
I opened my muzzle for a moment, hesitating as I recollected my knowledge of the English language, "I'm... Jasper Erickson. I heard you are quite the driver in ASCA." I quickly jumped to the subject of him, but surely it wouldn't come off as... obsessive... or so I hoped.
He gave a modest, hearty laugh as a response. Not too modest like I would've given (it's like my trademark), but modest nonetheless. I felt I could read the tanuki rather well considering I'd never met a tanuki before. "Hey, thanks. I've seen you on track, you are an incredibly talented fur!"
Well, wasn't that nice of him? I could tell right off the bat that this guy couldn't be bunched in with the normal NAFSCAR furs... no tough ol' southern boy. First off, he had a northwestern accent, pronouncing 'I' with the long vowel sound, not like the 'Ah' I'm used to hearing out of Louis, Rhys, and Tanner. Second off, I got the feeling he had no need to dog me with unending criticism I'm used to hearing from Louis and Rhys. Finally - Thirty seconds of conversation and he had not mentioned anything involving a mammary gland!
"You don't have to pay for my burger, man. I--"
"I insist, Jasper!" His smile captivated me. His black lips, wider than mine but still somewhat thin, curved into a pleasant crescent, his soft-looking tail shook a few times, almost as if he begged me to let him pay for it.
I allowed the act, and we sat at a small picnic table under the same tent. We barely had enough time to sit down before a few fans approached - all female.
"Oh my God, Jasper! Hi!" A light brown otter wearing nothing but a fuzzy red and white bikini exclaimed.
"Hello!" Her friend, a slightly darker otter with an equally-as-inappropriate blue bikini, said giddily.
"Hi." I smiled back at them, my right paw gripping the table in discomfort, but I tried to hide the nerves.
"Can we have an au-tograph?" The red bikini one leaned forward in a very suggestive and intrusive way on the first syllable of autograph. I wanted to ask her if she had some sort of nervous tick that caused the sudden seizure-like motion, but I wisely kept my blunt sarcasm to myself. A fan is a fan.
I looked to Brandon and he looked back at me, equally as uneasy... or did I just want to think that? Either way, I did eventually look back and acknowledge the fans' existences, and signed their... erm... half-naked model calenders... and gladly sent them on their way.
The third and, thank God, final otter leaned over the table and gave me a face like someone really was in her pants, "You know how hott you are, darlin'?"
I looked at her like she had smoked something powerful beforehand and responded, "No. I actually don't."
They giggled to each other and thanked me before swishing away with tails slightly raised.
I sighed and looked back at Brandon, leaning my face on my paw with an unamused expression.
"Heh..." Was all he mustered.
I shrugged and held the same expression for a few moments before taking a large bite out of my burger.
"Should... should I be expecting the same when I come around next year?" He asked, sounding a little weary.
"Hell yeah! Look at you, man!" I pointed at him dramatically and I yelled it louder than I wanted to. In fact, when I considered the sentence, I wished that I hadn't said it at all.
He puffed out his chest and pounded on it with a fist, "Oh yeah... got lots of hott to dish out!" I don't think he took it the way I feared he did. Good, but at this rate this stranger would know by the end of the day. I had to be more careful!
"Hey, Jackson!" A male among the group of otter girls yelled. I turned my head toward him.
"Ja-is it Jasper or Jackson?" The guy asked one of the girls. "Aspen?"
"No, it's Jasper."
"Oh, okay, so it is Jasper... is it?"
Just as I had mentioned before, when it comes to Jasper Erickson, male fans are few and far between, and this hound puts the icing on the kibble.
"Well, what about the 'coon thing with him? What's his name?" He asked.
Brandon shook his head and put his face in his paw, struggling not to laugh.
"Hey, Jasper! Brendon! I just bet my friend fifty bucks that you can bat this baseball on top of the haulers!" The clueless hound held up a baseball and an old wooden bat.
I shrugged at Brandon, "You think I should?"
The otter girls turned up their radio before Brandon could formulate an answer, and my favourite song came blasting out of their radio.
"Dammit MySpace." I breathed to myself. I nodded, "I'm doing it."
Brandon still sat there silently enjoying his burger, now encouraging me to do it. Before I left however, he remarked, "You like STP? You are officially awesome."
I turned and nodded, "Sweet! Yeah, love Stone Turtle Pilots!"
"Good luck!" He yelled.
I nodded at him then turned and jogged up the hill. I figured he wouldn't be there when I got back, but we had a nice first meet nonetheless... though I still had no clue why he bought me the burger... so I gave him a wave goodbye.
The hound handed me the bat and went to toss the ball. The haulers only sat a few dozen yards away, but I hadn't played any kind of baseball in years. Either way, I just barely made it, hence the guy winning the bet and giving me a high paw.
"Nice aim there. Ya hit mine." Brandon commented.
"Ha! I really hit the 10 hauler?!" I asked excitedly and then turned for confirmation.
The four fans had their attention drawn away by another wreck and proceeded to climb up their Rvs in the grassy clearing, leaving Brandon to me.
"So... I never told ya why I bought your meal." He scratched the back of his head awkwardly.
I scrunched up my face curiously, studying him a little.
Soon enough, it came up, "I actually wanted to ask you something. I guess you'd call my little buy-you-a-burger plot a bribe for information." His tail wagged slightly.
I laughed a little, "Bribe? Bud, that was an act of kindness. Thank you." We began to walk together back toward pit road, taking the dirt path back toward the entrance gate.
He scoffed, "I don't believe in being an ass. Won't get you anywhere in life." He paused a moment and then turned and gave me a serious look, "But... do you know why Izra got fired?"
I took a deep breath and attempted an answer, "I haven't heard all the details, but apparently the sponsor is eager to get him out of Pierce Enterprises immediately."
Brandon didn't know what to say, in obvious surprise.
I mustered a comment, "I just hope it's not like... cause nobody would accept him or anything. Like... if he was at all different. If that's the case, I'd seriously foresee the same for us." I only halfway knew my own point, yet I still carefully chose my vocabulary.
"How so?" He seemed fascinated by the comment.
"Dude, husky-lynx. I'm a pretty rare find. And you..." I looked at him from head to toe. Tall, lanky, average-bodied. His fur was soft and flowing, short black hair spiked atop his dark brown forehead. His muzzle, snout, and cheeks a beautiful shade of light brown sweeping down along the darker hue on his head in a smooth curve to his neck, a slight bit of chest fluff jetting out from his tight-fitting shirt. His arms and legs were built without being too bulbous, and his tail a decent length and thick, hanging behind him like a giant carry-along pillow. I caught myself before I drooled from both heads, "Tanuki. Never actually seen one in real life."
He smiled a bit, "Hey thanks! And dude, trust me, I know exactly how you feel with the whole rare find. I feel pretty different in the sport sometimes, but hey I'm here for some fun, not to fit in."
It then struck me that I'd started an engaging conversation with Brandon. It had to continue, "It's nice to know that I'm not alone out here then." At first, I treated the sentence as just a filler, completely unaware of what I'd just said. But, as we re-entered the area behind the pit wall, which a car had just slammed into and brought out the yellow flag, I realized what I'd just said. I tried my hardest to convince myself that he didn't care, but I felt the cheese hanging in the air. I had to take it back, "I mean--"
"You're right. But at least ya got a teammate." He looked at me with one of the most serious faces I'd seen all day, "Either way, we should definitely keep in touch so long as we're both still here."
Then I seriously realized what I'd said, and it became hard to hide my embarrassment, "I'm sorry if that came off dramatic at all."
He punched me on the shoulder and responded promptly, "It didn't. Don't sweat it, J."
Oh God... fifteen minutes and he's already taken the last five letters off my name. It's as if he knew me by heart already, and I'd shared maybe eight lines of dialogue with him. Despite myself, I shook my head and looked up into his face, my bashfulness prominent, "Good to hear I didn't manage to make a fool of myself again."
He smirked a little, "Should get ya an award at the end of the night."
I blew a raspberry, "It should. Hell, maybe I should get Christine's trophy."
"Naah..." He laughed, "First off, I'm sure stealing is a good way to make your stay here in the big leagues a short one, and secondly, you won't be wielding that trophy before me. How does it feel to talk with the first rookie champion?"
I eyed him as we entered the pit area again, our walk becoming increasingly slow, "Love how you can say that without a single Countrywide start!" I threw back, "We'll see when it comes game time, kid."
He pushed my head down playfully, his ears up and tail wagging, "Kid?!" He ran forward a little, his tail flowing behind him, "I'm like two years older and a foot taller than you!"
I froze where I was and dramatically pointed at him like a detective, "Your logic is strong... but your skills have yet to be displayed."
"Point taken, my friend. Let's promise to only be total enemies and try to kill each other on the track. Deal?"
I loved his witty way of stirring the pot. It reminded me of me on a good day, "Not just a deal. A promise." I caught up to him and patted him on the shoulder.
"And I promised..." He pulled out a small shred of paper and a pen from the pocket of his khakis, "I'll keep in touch. E-mail? Phone? Other sensitive information I easily market on Ebay and make a small fortune?" His exaggerated dogging was played off well by the demanding movements of his body.
I laughed a bit harder and gave him the info he requested... I couldn't help myself. Something about him represented the ideal embodiment of an ally on these enemy lines.
Jerrod greeted me again when I returned, using the word "y'all" at one point referring only to me. We talked for a little while, and this is when he told me about his team, facility, goals, policies, et cetera between on and off periods of radio communication with his driver... understandably so, given a championship to be won hung in the balance. I hoped I'd focused long enough on his words that I got the gist of it, for my mind stayed stuck on Brandon, but in a different, deeper way than before. How could I find another so similar in this world, to me, so different?
I caught sight of him atop the pitbox alongside the skunk one more time. His spiky black hair stood still as his cheekfur blew in the slight breeze. He stood poised and confident. He'd surely be tough competition, but why not make the best of that off the track?
"Off of turn four, here she comes! Christine Boyd will win at Homestead-Miami speedway, her fourth win of the year, en route to her first NAFSCAR title. Christine Boyd, for Pierce Enterprises, is your 2009 Swift Cup Series Champion!" Fort stated boldly as the race came to a close.