A Cab Ride in Las Vegas

So I’m cruising around the city looking for a fare, when outside the Flamingo, this guy with a briefcase waves me down. I stop, ask him where he’s headed. He just grins, gives me four hundred in cash, and tells me to drive. Anywhere, just drive.

“Got lucky tonight, huh?”

“You bet I did.” He grins like a six year old at Christmas. “Eight-point-six million… after taxes.” He opens the briefcase, and I’m lookin’ at more money than I know I’ll ever make in my lifetime.

“Wow.” I’m seriously impressed. I’ve had lucky fares before, but never one of these. They usually rent a limo for the night, not some broken down cab. Still, I aint complaining, not with four C notes in my pocket. The man wants me to drive? I drive.

So we cruise around Vegas for a coupla hours and talk. Well, funny enough, I do most of the talking, truth be told. He wants to know why I’m driving a cab — I tell him because it paid for college, and then when I got out of college, it gave me a job. Yeah, one of these days I’ll move to LA or NY — but on a cabbie’s pay, that’s like a week from Never. He just nods.

So he decides he’s hungry, and we stop to eat. Nothin’ outrageous or Strip fancy: just this great little grill I know out on the east side of town. He eats like it was gourmet dining, compliments the waitress, the cook, the cashier. Then we get back in the cab, and I ask him where to now?

The airport, he says.

So I’m figuring this is the end of the road, right? Wrong. We go park at the end of the runway and sit on the hood and watch the planes take off. He asks me if I ever wanted to travel? Sure, says I. Maybe someday. Not now, though.

He suddenly sits up and looks at me. “How long have we been driving around?” About four hours, I tell him. “I probably owe you more, then. Here.” And he hands me another couple of hundred. I just nod, thank him, and pocket it: the customer’s always right, right?

So we hit the road again. He tells me about his lousy family and how his wife left him and how maybe the money will change all that. I just laugh. “Dont count on it, bud. They’ll love you till the trough is dry, then you’ll be back where you started.”

“I suppose. You see that a lot?”

“Far too much.”

He just nods, then starts asking me about my family. I tell him about my girl, how we’re engaged, and how much I wish I could do something with my life just so she could be proud of me.

“So what do you know how to do?” he asks.

“Not much, I guess.”

He just nods, and then we’re both real quiet for a while, like we’ve pretty well talked each other out for the night. He starts giving me directions now: turn here, take this exit, go left here, make a right at the sign. And I havent the foggiest idea where we are — out in the desert someplace, probably in Arizona by now, on a little road that doesnt go anywhere. I guess if I were a sensible guy, I’d be a little scared that he might take a knife to me out here in the middle of nowhere… but he’s not that kind, I can tell.

“Stop. Right here.”

I do. There’s nothin’, for miles. He gets out of the cab. “Thanks for a great evening.”

“You sure you want out here?”

He grins and nods, then points to the mountains north of us. “The interstate back into Vegas is over there. You can find your way?”

“Sure, but — ”

“Good. Good night then.” And he starts walking off into the desert.

I watch him for a while, then get out and yell, “You okay? You sure this is where you want?”

He doesnt turn around, just nods and waves his hand.

“But there’s nothin’ here!” I yell.

He turns and yells back. “That’s okay with me.” Then he turns back around and walks away.

Maybe he has a house or somethin’ out here, I think. So I get back in the cab and drive back to the Interstate. I turn around to make sure I can ease into traffic — and goddam if he hasnt left the briefcase.

So I turn around and head back to where I dropped him off. But he’s gone. I mean, nowhere. I drove off the road towards where he was headed, and nothin’. I figure, okay, I gotta call the cops, so I open the briefcase, thinking there might be something inside with his name on it, an IRS form or something like that. Nothing. Just a note, written on a napkin from the diner: This should be enough to get you started in New York, right?

When I got back to Vegas, I called the cops, told them… well, almost everything. They knew who he was, of course: big winners are always noted. I took them out to where I dropped him off, and they found his footprints, walking for about three hundred yards, then just stopped. Disappeared. Like he was never there at all. They asked me a few questions, checked out my story with the diner and airport security, then sent me on my way. It was no biggie to them: folks take a hike and disappear all the time in Vegas.

The briefcase’s been under my bed for six months now. I dont know what to do with it. He gave it to me, but you know they’ll never believe that. I mean, it’s mine, right? But without him telling them that it’s mine… well, you get the picture, huh? So under the bed it stays, until I figure out what to do with it. Maybe I will, someday.

One Man’s Castle

He’d bought the land forty years ago, when land was cheap and the village was still four miles down the road. Three acres, enough, he decided, upon which to build his castle. He wanted a big house, with rooms for no other purpose except to exist.

But that required money, and he’d spent all he had, for the moment, on the land itself. So he contented with a small wooden cabin and reassured himself that one day, he’d have that huge house of his dreams.

In the interim, he faithfully mowed the acreage to keep it trim. But it only took a few months of that before he decided he’d had enough, that he could get away with less mowing time by planting a few flowers, maybe some trees. Those didnt need a lot of maintenance, and they’d take up some space. Win win all around, he decided with a grin.

Years passed, and the village became a city whose limits now met his own. When he was incorporated inside it, he was told his cabin didnt meet building standards. So he nodded his head and rebuilt it into a wooden frame house the same size. Nothing lavish: a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, a bath. He didnt want to waste the money or the energy when he knew that someday he’d be building the house for which this acreage was intended.

More years passed, and his once isolated lot was now encircled by developments of huge buildings, structures so large they barely remained within their lots. There were more people now, so he built a fence to keep them off his land, then added more flowers. His wood frame house was now starting to crack and shift, so he rebuilt it one more time, this time of bricks, with a little ornamental window over the door.

Evenings, he would sit outside, enjoying the night air as it rustled through the trees on his lawn. The few flowers had now become gardens that commanded a full half of the space, and the smell, at that moment, the very tag end of the day, was sweet. Calming. Delicious.

He looked across the way, at his neighbours, in their big buildings in the big developments. As the sun settled, they turned on their lights and locked their doors, a wall of light around the man’s little castle on his three acres of land.

The Sophomore

So who’d you get for history? Who? Aw, man, that sucks… she’s a monster, dude. No, square, she is. Well, hey, dont say I didnt warn ya.

No, I’m still figuring out my major. I’ve changed, like, fifteen times. I dunno, man — part of me wants to just blow this place and get a job somewhere. Degree aint gonna be worth anything anyway, right? So why waste the money when I can use it to party?

Hey, at least it’s using it for something worthwhile. You aint met my dormmate yet, have you? Pret-ty frea-ky, that’s all I can say.

So anyway I thought I’d just…. Whoa.

No, dont look up.

Yeah, he’s here.

Dude, I told you not to look up. Man!!!

Yeah.

Yeah, he’s hot, isnt he.

I mean, totally and completely hot.

Doesnt even know it. I mean, can you imagine? Guy this gorgeous, and completely clueless about it. Man.

No, I havent said anything to him! Are you nuts???

No.

No.

No, not until I know if he’s… you know… one of us. But no way am I gonna go up to him and just say, “Hey there!” without having some idea how he’s gonna react. Suicide is not my best bud, okay? Dont even want in the same room. What if I’m wrong? What if he isnt?

Huh?

What do you mean, who cares? I care, dude. I’m not making a fool of myself in front of the whole school just so I can…

Yeah, it’d be different if he was Cindy Thompson, Perpetual Cheerleader. But he isnt, is he? No, he’s this utterly cool stone fox, and I would get down on my knees and lick the tire treads of the delivery truck that takes away his dirty laundry, given half the chance.

Aw hell, who am I kidding. He wouldnt like a guy like me. He’d probably prefer the Perpetual Cheerleader, so why even…

Dude, he’s…. like…. looking at me!

Oh God oh God oh God…. he’s smiling…. and waving.

What do I do? Huh? Right, wave back. Try not to look like an idiot, but wave back. Oh man, he’s coming over!!!!

Call ya later!

In the Beginning, There was the Word…

“So,” his wife snickered, “figured it out yet?”

He stared at the slip of paper. “No… not yet… Is that an ‘a’? Does that look like an ‘a’ to you?”

“It looks like a squiggle, Harold.”

He sighed. He should have known better than to ask her. She’d been laughing at him about this for… well, for a very long time. He no longer remembered when he wrote the Word. A long time ago, in the middle of the night. He’d suddenly awoken, with the dream memory of it still fresh.

“What’re you doing?” his wife had asked.

“Just writing something down, before I forget it.”

She snorted, turning over and returning to sleep. The next morning, over breakfast, she asked him, “So what was so important that you had to write it down?”

“I’m… not sure.” It was an incomprehensible jumble of ink marks. Not quite letters, and yet not quite not letters. All he knew was, it was incredibly important… somehow…It was perhaps the Most Important Word ever written… if he could just figure out what it was.

For weeks, months, years later, he carried it with him. Frustrated by his obsession, his wife left him. Friends disappeared. The paper itself grew soft, the ink faded, as he continued to perplex through the countless possible variations of vowel and consonant, none ever quite matching the elusive combination that danced before him. But he never wavered in his belief that, somehow, it was vitally, supremely important.

“Did he ever figure it out?” asked the Woman with the Shaved Head.

“I think so,” the Listener replied, “although no one knows for sure. The day nurse said she found him holding it — and smiling… so I gather he did.”

“What was it? Does anyone know?”

The Listener shook his head. “Just a scribble on a piece of paper.”

Abduction by a Kindred Spirit

Billy Johnson wasnt in school today. No one’s seen Don Murphy for two days now.

The phone’s right there. Pick it up. Call someone.

Part of him was glad. Johnson and Murphy could stay lost, for all he cared. After what he’d had to endure from them for… months now, they could be at the bottom of a very deep well, screaming for help, and he’d happily ignore…

Stop it. Dont think like that. He turned over, facing the ceiling, trying to ignore the little voices in his head that all said, Part of this is your fault.

No, it wasnt, not at all. It was… that guy.

Everyone had been talking for weeks now about the disappearances. Fourteen kids, mostly teenagers, all across the tri-county area. When the bodies started to show up, folks got even more scared. Curfews were imposed: if you were under sixteen and out after six by yourself, the police would take you down to the station and wait for your parents to come get you. All for your own good, they said.

My own good? he thought miserably. When did any of them care about my own good? All the nights his father told him to just “stand up to those bullies and be a man!” All the mornings his mother ignored his pleas to be able to stay home, anything to avoid going to school and face Johnson and Murphy and all the others who seemed to take a special delight in making him feel as miserable as possible.

So he ran away. And he hadnt gotten ten miles before a nice man in a big shiny car picked him up and took him to an abandoned barn and told him he was going to die. Fine. Do it, he’d answered. It’s not like you’re gonna accomplish much. No one’s gonna care. Just do it and get it over with.

His would-be attacked stopped, the knife poised in mid-air…

… and they talked, long into the night. He told the man about the boys who made his life a living hell, and the man nodded in complete and utter understanding. Later, when the man dropped him off at his house, he felt like, for the first time in his life, he had a friend.

His parents were beside themselves with worry, but he made up a story that seemed to work. And when he went to school the next day, he felt almost happy.

Then Matthew Franklin disappeared. Captain of the football team and one of his main tormentors. The police found his body the next day.

Then Steve Wagner was gone. The police found him pretty quickly as well, and they started to wonder if maybe this serial murderer wasnt just leaving the victims’ remains out where he knew the police would see them.

And now Billy Johnson and Don Murphy have gone missing…

The phone’s right there. Pick it up. Call someone.

The Gateway

“How long did he stay?” the Woman with the Shaved Head asked incredulously.

The Listener thought for a moment before replying. “He’s not sure. Three, perhaps four years.”

“And when he came back?”

When he came back, it was like nothing had changed. Actually, there was no “like” about it. Nothing had changed, period. No time had passed. It was as though three or four years of his life had suddenly been given back to him, with all his memories of that time intact.

True, the memories — for the most part, anyway — weren’t much. He’d gone to sleep one night in his own bed and woke up the next morning just outside the Door. He had no idea how he’d gotten there, just that he was lying next to a doorway set improbably on a beach somewhere in what looked like the South Pacific. It was large and circular at the top, like anything you would find at a middle-class Chinese restaurant. He liked Chinese restaurants. Maybe this was someone’s way of making him feel… comfortable? On the other side, everything looked like a continuation of the beach… and yet, at the same time, it didn’t. It was almost like a painted backdrop of his beach. Maybe it was the color of the light. Maybe it was the way the shadows weren’t quite the same. But it wasn’t part of his beach; that was for certain. At first he wanted to go through the Door to see what it was, but something inside said “No. Dont do that.” Somehow he knew that if he did go through the Door, he’d never be able to come back. He didnt know how he knew this, just that he did.

He also knew — somehow — that he was supposed to guard the Door. From what he wasnt sure, but that was his job. For a month, he stood next to it, waiting for… something. At night, while he slept, trays of food were left for him, trays that came from the Other Side, as he began to call it. Other things appeared: clothing, shelter, even the odd sleepover guest, none of whom ever spoke and simply disappeared at dawn. They always came at night, always while he slept.

At one point, he woke to find a large man smiling down on him. “Hello,” the man said. “We just wanted to let you know you’re doing a good job. Keep up the good work.” Then the man walked away from the Door and disappeared into the lush green forest. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly that he didnt know how to respond, and yet, again, somehow he knew he wasn’t supposed to.

He’d been there for about six months when a woman appeared on the beach, walking toward him. Dressed in an immaculate white business suit, she carried a small black leather valise. She stopped in front of him and opened the case, as though it were some annoyingly simple task she just wanted done and over. He looked inside: there was nothing inside the case.

“Is it all right?” she asked with a bit of impatience. He nodded. “Thanks,” she snapped, then walked briskly through the Door and disappeared into the illusionary beach. Curious, he cautiously approached the Door and stuck his head through —–

— and pulled it back almost immediately. The view was… he’d never seen anything quite like… there were no words to… and he was never doing that again.

“What did he see?” the Woman with the Shaved Head asked.

“He didnt say. He couldnt, you see. There apparently werent words to describe it.”

“But was it good? Bad? Terrifically dull and ordinary? Surely he should have been able to tell you that much.”

The Listener shook his head. “He couldnt.”

“Were there other visitors?”

“A few, every three or four months. They stopped, opened empty briefcases, passed through and disappeared into… whatever was on the other side. And then one morning he was back in his own bed.”

“What do you think he saw?”

The Listener shrugged.

The War Zone

My first day here, what struck me most was the doors. I mean, obvious, right? But you go through six or seven layers of them, all locking behind you, before you realize they only open in one direction — and that’s in. Once you’re inside and you see the thirty foot walls that surround this place, that’s it; no way out. And that’s cool with me. I dont know whose idea this was, but man, it’s freaking brilliant.

Yeah, the global war thing was getting out of hand. Too many options, I guess, for someone like me. Syria? Ukraine? CAR? The choices were endless, so you can imagine how happy I was when the UN announced the formation of a War Zone. Every country scraped together a few billion, bought off some tin pot dictators, cleared the space of any animal life, and turned it into the perfect battlefield. No idea how big this mutha is, but it’s huge, like some infinite video game, ‘cept it’s, you know, real. Sweet. Buddy told me this was almost half of Northern Africa, and I wouldnt be surprised. Basically, it works like this: say you got an issue with another country. Rather than blowing up each other’s real estate, you get some guys, they get some guys, and everyone heads to the War Zone. Happy times.

Once you arrive, they take you into the Armory. Tell you to load up with as much as you can carry. The idiots are the ones who act like it’s a Chinese buffet and take one of everything. Then they find out real fast that it aint easy carrying all that stuff around. Now me, I travel light, so I picked up a couple of small things, just enough to get me started. I figured, hell, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff lying around out there. I was right. Anything I need — from an M-16 to a shoulder-borne ground-to-air missile launcher — is out there next to someone who couldnt cut it. Hell, weaponry, armour, rations: it’s all out there, ready for the taking. Sure, you have to get past all the bodies — and after a decade of the War Zone, there’s a lot of ’em — but I’m down with that. Never waste, that’s my motto. If some guys gets it, no sense in letting his rations go to waste, right? See this helicopter? I shot this puppy down with one really clean, elegant shot. Havent checked through all of the wreckage yet, but way I see it, I’m gonna be eating like a king for the next week.

Oh sure, technically you’re supposed to only go after your own enemy — rumour has it that almost every country on earth has someone here, and I wouldnt be surprised at that either. I dont think anyone’s left in Syria or Lebanon or Israel — least, not any of the menfolk. They turn us loose here, and the Geneva Convention is out the window. You dont get POWs here, nossir. And those UN guys were smart: even so much as mention war, in any fashion, and off you went, whether you liked it or not. Personally, I like that idea. If you think war is so great — which, man, I do — then you better be ready to put your money where your mouth is. So you look around this place, and you see everyone from drunken frat boys who got a little macho one night at some pizza joint to members of some North Dakota militia who were just itching to play (until they realized everyone else can shoot back) to even a few congressmen who said the wrong thing on a Fox talk show — and let me tell you, those fat old men squeal real pretty when you corner one.

Who wins, you ask? Hell, out here? Everyone.