22. What Would You Do If Your Family Died?

According to the car, Sunstone Hospital—or The Sunstone Institute for the Advancement of Mental Health, as it was called in full—was only thirty-five minutes away. But the car's estimate failed to take into account traffic or weather conditions, or possibly the physical laws delimiting the movement of objects through space-time. And the car stubbornly refused to revise its estimate, but simply counted down from thirty-five, holding each individual "minute" as long as necessary to make reality conform to its prediction. At one intersection, Drew watched a single minute dilate monstrously, as if time itself had come to a standstill.

When at last he reached the city limits, the billscreens became fewer and brighter. "Fuck Ugly"—over a face so beautiful it should have been outlawed. "Cut Loose: Get Joosed"—and a picture of the aerodynamic bottle juxtaposed, simply and without comment, next to a separate photograph of Holly Nairn, and then one of James Idaho, and then one of Harley Findley. A loop of the President smiling, stern and paternal, and the motto: "Be Vigilant—It's Your Country." A cartoon of some Asian-looking brute with dripping fangs and swastikas for pupils stalking a leggy blond dreamily swinging a purse. Below this presumably ironic throwback to old propaganda posters was the ubiquitous slogan, in red dripping letters: THIS IS THE FACE OF THE ENEMY. Did this refer to the Asian neo-Nazi, or to the naive, distracted, self-absorbed American? Maybe the ambiguity was intentional.

His attention was drawn by an orange billscreen that asked in bold block letters:

what would you do if your family died?

There was no logo, no product—and no answer to the question. He did not understand it, and knew he was not supposed to. It was a viral advertisement. In a week or a month the billscreen would display the sequel; in the meantime, the advertisers hoped that your confusion would make the ad impossible to forget. In the meantime, perhaps, you would honestly ask yourself the question: What would you do if your family died? Somehow, he did not think this was an ad for a funeral home or casket company—the cheery color seemed to rule that out. And the question after all was not what would you do if a single family member died, but if your entire family died. The implication, almost too awful to contemplate, must be: What would you do with your freedom if suddenly your family was out of the picture?

Probably it would prove to be an ad for an expensive car, or a vacation, or a new, younger look. It was sure to be something dumb, unnecessary, and prosaic.

What would I do if my family died? How would my life be different if everyone I cared about just ... disappeared?

He had probably asked himself the question many years ago. Or at least a variation on the question: What would I do if my wife died? How would my life be different if Sheila just disappeared?

In the end, of course, he had been the one to disappear.

He thought, for the first time in weeks, of Rhonda Shipley with her dreams of Germany, and Gerard Shipley with his freshly shaved upper lip.

Nathan Shipley had given his parents a second youth.

Perhaps the girl in the hotel room had done the same.

But it doesn't work, stupid, if they can't identify you.

It suddenly struck him: How does one go unidentified in this day and age? What about the serial numbers on earbugs and throat-patches? What about post-mortem voice reconstruction? What about dental records?

Either no one was looking for her, or she had gone to great lengths not to be found.

Getting her earbugs removed. Slashing her throat, destroying her vocal cords? Pulling out her own teeth?

He indulged these morbid thoughts to keep his mind off his destination.