Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake
jaylake

[fiction] "Heading West"

As recently mentioned, I'm am now posting occasional reprints of my fiction here on this blog. Watch for the tag "fiction," as in http://jaylake.livejournal.com/tag/fiction. I'm starting the series with a short story called "Heading West."

This was written for Fundamentally Challenged SLF Review | Jeff Turner Publishing ], edited by Jeff Turner, published in 2004. It has recently been reprinted in my 2007 collection from Wheatland Press, The River Knows Its Own Tangent Online Review | Wheatland Press ]. This story is 6,800 words long, and it concerns a man who has a pressing desire to go home. If you like this story, please consider supporting Jeff Turner Publishing and Wheatland Press with a purchase.




Heading West



by Jay Lake


The Sikh

Roy woke with the feeling that something large had passed him by. Like a shark in muddy waters, or an earthquake barely noticed aboard a rocking boat.

What had it been?

Then a distant siren began to wail. It howled a song of police and panic and someone in danger or fear, before being joined in chorus by a second, then a third, then quickly a dozen or more until he could not separate the voices.

Roy rubbed the crust of sleep from his eyes, sighed as he glanced at the clock -- 3:42 a.m. -- then stumbled to the window of his hotel room and twitched back the curtain. Outside, downtown Boston rose in skyscrapers and neoclassical rooflines and the jittery orange glare of streetlights, just like always.

But above, where there should have been vague orange-tinted clouds, or perhaps a scattering of stars faded to irrelevance by urban light pollution, was...

What?

Gold, thought Roy. Or maybe marble. If metal and stone were translucent. The night sky had turned to glittering ice, threaded with veins of bright metal and odd, dark pockets like the gaping mouths of mineshafts.

A trio of police cars sped by below, even as gunshots echoed, audible through the glass of the hotel window.

Things were different now. Probably forever.

Roy grabbed his cell phone, tried to dial home to Oregon. Nothing. No ring of the phone in the old Victorian in southeast Portland. No voicemail. No signal or system message at all.

No Ellen with her exasperated sighs and loving silences on the phone. No Adrien with her newly-lost tooth he hadn't yet seen.

Almost frantic, but still too tired to be fully afraid, Roy tried the hotel phone.

It was just as dead.

Quickly he gathered a few clothes into his soft-sided briefcase. To hell with his wheelie and his suits. He had to get home, now.



People already roamed the streets in packs. Back Bay yuppies mixed with winos from the grates behind the public library. Bulky figures in hooded sweatshirts flashed guns and knives, but the early shooting had died down.

Somehow, Roy flagged a cab, an old Chevy Caprice in some dark color indistinguishable by streetlight. He wasn't sure why the driver had stopped. Maybe it was because Roy was by himself.

"This is not good," the driver said. He was a turbaned Sikh with sad eyes and an accent who stared through the plexiglas partition at Roy, his face distorted by the air holes drilled into the translucent surface. The cab stank of incense and spiced food. "Where do you hope to go?"

"Logan," said Roy. Not that he really expected to find a flight, not with the sky in such disarray. But there was a chance there. Plus a hell of a lot of rental cars. "I have to get home to my family," he added.

"I live in Revere." The driver's eyes narrowed. "I go home to my family, too, drop you off on the way."

Roy glanced at the meter. The Sikh had not yet started it running. That always meant a rip-off. "How much?"

The Sikh shrugged. "For you, nothing. I fear for you that it will not matter." He turned around, dropped the cab into gear. "Nothing will matter the same way any more."



They rocketed through early morning Boston, down alleys and side streets, the driver avoiding places where people might be congregating. The Sikh had tuned into WBUR, which carried an NPR feed of a very strained Carl Kasell. "No one's talking right now, officially, not NASA or NOAA or the weather service. But I have, uh, spoken with a meteorologist, that would be Lieutenant Commander Berman Hackney of the Naval Observatory here in Washington. Lieutenant Commander Hackney reports that the moon does not appear to have progressed in its orbit since the, uh, event that occurred around 3:39 in the morning, Washington time."

Holy crap, thought Roy, as the cab ran a red light. What did that mean? What about the sun?

They rolled on through the gold-tinged night, the glowing sky drawing his eye over and over despite his efforts not to look up.

It had to be the end of the world.



They made it through the Ted Williams tunnel, but the ramp to Logan Airport was blocked by cops and National Guard troops. The Sikh shook his head and kept driving. Roy didn't say anything as they exited onto a surface street he didn't catch the name of. The Sikh was muttering in some Asian language, prayers or imprecations. According to the dashboard clock, it was almost five in the morning, but the night didn't seem to be going anywhere.

Finally the cab lurched to a halt on a block of dilapidated row houses. The Sikh turned and stared through the plexiglass again.

Roy stared back. Neither of them said anything for a few moments, as if they were about to fight, or kiss. Then the Sikh smiled.

"Take the cab," he said. "I think I will not be needing it anymore now that I am home."

"I..." Roy stopped.

"Do good, be well."

Then the driver was gone, trotting between parked cars and up a well-swept set of steps. Roy shrugged, got out of the back and went around to the driver's door and sat behind the wheel. After a moment's thought he found the driver's city atlas. He realized that he would be better off heading north than trying to get back across the harbor and through downtown.

After checking his route, Highway 60 towards Malden, Roy dropped the cab into gear and set out. He fiddled with the stereo until he found a station that was on the air with music instead of commentary or static, and settled in to some big band music.

He tried not to think about gas. One thing at a time.



The Student

Late morning, such as it was under that dark, gold-veined sky, found Roy approaching Williamstown and the New York state line on Highway 2. Traffic had been weird, alternating hellishly heavy and nonexistent, but he hadn't run into any full-scale roadblocks. He figured those were only a matter of time.

The gas gauge was low, but Roy had resisted stopping so far. He'd reasoned that he'd run out of gas all the same no matter when he stopped, if it wasn't there to buy, so he'd kept going.

He saw a dark Texaco logo ahead, one of those tall highway signs. He slowed even though it was unlit. Lights were on inside the convenience store building. He pulled over, easing the Caprice up to a pump under the canopy. The old cab rode rough and steered loose, but he was already a hundred and some odd miles closer to Oregon, so he wasn't complaining.

Only three thousand more to go.

Getting out, he saw that the orange numbers on the pumps were lit. They were working, then. He tugged out the hose, flipped down the license plate to reach the filler cap, jammed the handle into place, then went inside to negotiate.

There was no one behind the counter, though the register hummed slightly amidst its honor guard of Slim Jims and cigarette lighters. The store was aisles of candy and crackers and automotive supplies, with a little deli corner featuring a flyspecked donut case and a skinny girl smoking a cigarette. She looked like she was about fifteen, face pale as cheese. She wasn't wearing a Texaco uniform, just blue jeans and a flower print sleeveless blouse a size too small for her.

"Where's the gas guy?" Roy asked her from his position at the counter.

She blew smoke upward, then shrugged. "Said he'd be back in a minute."

"How long ago?"

Another shrug. "Couple of hours."

Roy stepped around the counter to look at the cash register. He knew there would be a control panel for the pumps there.

"It's that tan thing with the square buttons," she said, startling him.

"I'm not--" A thief, Roy had started to say, but he didn't see the point.

"Sure."

He turned his pump on and trudged back outside. The old Caprice would have a damned big tank, so he had time to stop and try the payphones. Dead of course. No chance to call Ellen or Adrien.

After a while, the car had taken slightly over eighteen gallons of premium. He hung the pump handle back in place, wiped the spill off the bumper, then went back in to leave some cash by the register.

He really wasn't a thief. Not yet, at any rate.

The smoking girl was leaning against the counter when Roy pushed open the station doors. "You taking fares, cab man?"

He leaned past her, set twenty-five dollars next to the register and weighted the two bills down with the penny cup. "No fares," he said.

"It's a cab." She jabbed with the cigarette, a sunset-orange firefly streaking across his vision to point toward the car. "You should ought to take fares."

Something in her moved him -- her lack of panic, perhaps, in the face of the end of the world. "No fares," he repeated, "but I'm headed west. I can give you a ride."

"I'd really like to reach Buffalo." She sounded wistful. "Mom and Dad, they'd need me...now."

"Now," he said by way of agreement. It was as good as word as any for what had befallen the world.

As they walked back out to the car, he added, "No smoking in the cab."

She smiled like a beatific junkie and tossed the butt over her shoulder.



Shortly after they'd crossed into New York state, she leaned against the back seat and began talking through the plexiglass partition. Her voice was a mumble at first, and he had trouble catching the first few phrases. He felt like a priest at confessional.

"...then they told me to go to Hell, and I told them I was already living there. I...I...I was real mad, but they weren't really wrong."

She took a deep, shuddering breath, but Roy didn't think he was meant to respond. Not yet, any way.

"He brought me out here," she went on. "Another state, another life." Then she laughed, a short, bitter bark. "Well, there, Massachusetts. Where we just were. Six months later, he's in holding on statutory and dealing within a thousand feet of a school and the cops are crawling all over me for an accessory. I didn't know nothing, but they never believe that shit. Not from the girlfriend."

Another shuddering breath.

"So I rolled, told them what they wanted to hear. It was lies, they knew it, I knew it, he knew it, but what the fuck was I going to do? No way Mom and Dad were going to take me back.

"Sick part was, I even got paid off by the district attorney's office. Some War on Drugs thing. Tell lies, make money. Kind of like politics, I guess.

"I'd had enough of that shit, his shit, my shit. They got this cow college out here, community college for the farm kids and stuff, with ag courses and dental hygienist and whatever. I been taking health tech, studying up to do lab work. God forbid I ever get anywhere in this life, maybe someday I'll go to med school. Be a doctor. Save people from themselves."

Her voice lapsed then, trailing off into another series of those shuddering breaths that eventually collapsed into a sigh.

Would Adrien be like this someday?

Roy watched a couple of more miles roll on the odometer. They were winding through hilly country now, farmhouses and little town centers gleaming under the gold-shot sky. A few people out on the road, not many. He was glad he'd stayed off the Interstates.

As for the girl, he wasn't sure what to say, but it seemed to be his turn. "You really want to help people, doctor's not bad."

"Doctor." She laid her cheek on the seat back, her head pressed up against the plexi. "Shit dream for a shit town girl like me."

That touched him. "No dream is shit," he said. "Especially not one about helping people."

"Pretty fucking deep for a cabbie."

"I'm not--" He stopped, again.

What was he? A marketing director, helping sell people software they didn't need. Now, as she'd called the new order of things, probably meant no more marketing directors.

He was just a guy who wanted to get home, a guy behind the wheel of a cab. That was kind of a neat idea, he decided.

"Not what?" she finally asked.

"Not one to piss on your dreams," he said.

After a while, he tried the cell phone again, but it was still unable to pick up a signal.



Somewhere close to Albany, as Roy was looking for routes north around the metro area, she shouted for him to stop. "Let me out here!"

He pulled to the curb in a squeal of brakes. They were in a small town business district. "This isn't Buffalo," he told her.

"I know." She smiled. "Just wait. Give me fifteen minutes, and trust me."

Why the hell not, he thought? He nodded and killed the engine. She jumped out of the back of the cab, ran across the street and into a hardware store that had its lights on.

A few minutes later, she came out with an armload of cylinders -- spray cans? he wondered -- followed by a skinny kid in a red vest, carrying another armload. They both knelt down outside his door, and she got to work with the spray cans.

Roy couldn't decide whether to be angry or amused, but when he peered up through the windshield at the permanent, gold-veined twilight, he decided it didn't matter.

After a while she tapped on the glass, yelling, "Come look!"

He got out, pushed the driver door shut with his fingertips.

The cab company's name on the door had been painted over with a white cloud, a rather inexpertly rendered unicorn curled up on it. The words 'DREAMS FOR HIRE' curlicued above the image in silver and blue. The whole effect was reminiscent of one of those late 70's custom vans, only not as tasteful.

"Thanks," he said, suddenly wishing he smoked.

Her smile was shy. "I been taking art."

The kid in the red vest giggled. "Good luck, you guys," he said, then gathered up the paint cans and went back inside his store.



The Cop

Roy got stopped at his first real roadblock in Rome, Ohio, a day later. Day, at least, in the sense that more than twenty-four hours had passed by the Caprice's dash clock. He'd bought gas twice more, slept at an Interstate rest stop, and tried every payphone he saw.

There were two police cruisers pulled across the road nose-to-nose, though they didn't have their lights on. A cop with a flashlight and a shotgun stood in front of the cars, while a few more people stood in shadows off the road, smoking cigarettes.

Roy didn't like the look of it, but he didn't see much choice except to pull over. He cranked down the driver's window as the old cab eased to a stop.

The cop checked his front plate with the flashlight, then walked around to the driver's side window. All Roy could see was the glare of the bulb.

"Where you from, son?" The cop sounded like he was from a lot further south than Rome, Ohio.

Roy tried for polite. "Oregon, sir."

"This here's Massachusetts plates on this car."

"That's right, sir."

"Strange times we're living in."

"Strange times," Roy agreed.

The cop studied him for a minute, then lowered the flashlight. Roy looked back, really seeing the man for the first time by the golden glow of the sky. This was an old cop, with a hangdog face dripping wrinkles and skin that would have been chapped and red in a normal light.

It looked like the face of a man who might understand.

"I'm just trying to go home," Roy said.

"Ain't we all?" The cop leaned on the window frame, folding his arms into his elbows, flashlight wavering in his grip. "Governor's declared a state of emergency, son. Can't rightly be out on the Ohio roads right now except on official business."

Inspiration struck, or at least fizzled, in Roy. He smiled. "I am on official business."

"Official for who?"

He felt like an idiot even as he said it. "Dreams. I'm carrying dreams through the night."

The cop started laughing, stepped back from the door to double over, so that smokers in the shadows all turned to look. Roy sat, hands on the wheel, and wondered how dumb he really was.

After a couple of minutes, the cop got his breath back. He turned to shout into the shadows, "I'll ride with him to the county line, Brattain," then walked around the Caprice and got in the passenger side. "Best line I've heard since this stuff started," he said to Roy. "Just pull her around the tail of that right hand car. I'll see you through."

Roy dropped the cab into gear and did what he was told.



The cop bought them donuts in downtown Rome, such as that was. The whole village would have fit into the block Roy lived on in Portland. He didn't much care for donuts in general, but he ate his glazed yeast in silence.

"I served in Vietnam, real early," the cop told him. "There was still some old French officers around then. They liked to sit in those little open-air bars down by the river drinking cognac with the hookers and talking about Dien Bien Phu. Must have brought their own cognac, 'cause I never got nothing there but local beer. Tiger Piss, we called it, for the angry tiger on the label."

Roy licked glaze off his fingers and kept driving.

"Anyway, to hear them tell it, Dien Bien Phu was the end of civilization. Everything since was just the corpse twitching. They were already dead, they figured, those old Frogs, and were just making the most of every day they woke up with breath in their bodies."

Was it the cab, Roy wondered? No one had ever felt the need to confess to him before. He'd liked things better that way.

The old cop continued. "So I figure these last couple of days, what with the sun gone from the sky, this is the end of civilization. The real end. We don't have no battle to look back on. The Earth just stopped turning. You know, over in Asia, they got sunlight all the time now. Whole countries are cooking. It's just chilly here. And there's weather coming like nobody's ever seen before."

Roy hadn't really thought of it that way, but the cop had a point. Other than the Earth stopping in place, the rest of physics seemed to still be working. Atmospheric dynamics would be catching up soon.

The cop cleared his throat. "So, dream boy, what do you think it all means?"

"I don't know," Roy said slowly. "It means a lot of things. It means I'm a long way from home. It means you're thinking back on the past like it was real all over again. It means this student I gave a ride to back in Massachusetts won't ever get to be a doctor. It means anything and everything." He thought for a moment. What did it mean to Ellen and Adrien? Or him? "Maybe it means we're supposed to consider our lives and what we stand for."

The cop chuckled. "Maybe it means you're a damned liar, or at least your car door is."

"There is that."



The cop, who was actually a deputy sheriff named Jasper Greggs, rode with him all the way to the Indiana state line. His badge got Roy past at least a dozen roadblocks. Along the way they talked about kids and families and arthritis and basketball and everything but the permanent night sky above them.

At the state line, Roy pulled over. "You sure you want to get out?"

Greggs rubbed his thumb across the badge in his hand. "Reckon I'm like those old Frogs drinking down by the Mekong. This here's my pond. I'm sworn to the State of Ohio and the people of Adams County. Indiana can take care of itself, and so can you, son."

"It's been a pleasure, Deputy Greggs," said Roy, offering his hand.

They shook, then the old cop got out and started walking east.



The Preacher

Indiana was a hassle, while Illinois was a nightmare. Chicago burned, the fire visible from fifty miles south, and what radio reports he could pick up said there was looting. The only thing that saved Roy was the coming of the storms Greggs had spoken of. Hail like bullets swept a lot of people off the roads. He was reduced to begging for gas at a truck stop, then driving away with the hose still in his tank when shooting started there. He didn't even get a chance to try to call home.

Time spent studying a map persuaded Roy to head for the Quad Cities. There were only so many bridges across the Mississippi, and he was hoping for a crossing that might be open, with minimal official scrutiny. He might have to abandon the cab, but at least he'd be halfway home.

Almost halfway, at any rate.

Somewhere in Whiteside County, Illinois, not too far east of Moline, his luck ran out. A thin man with wild eyes and pale hair, visible in stuttering strokes of lightning, dashed in front of the cab waving a spear. Roy locked up the brakes trying not to hit him and lurched into a ditch along Highway 2. As he tried to fight his way free of the seatbelt, the thin man began banging on the driver's side window.

"Get the hell away from my car!" Roy shouted.

The attacker shouted back, his voice lost in the rolls of thunder. He banged on the window again, this time with the butt of his spear. It seemed to be made of a shovel handle topped with a pair of flattened-out malt liquor tall boy cans bound by baling wire.

Roy got himself untangled from the belt and slammed the door open into the other man's knees. The stranger tumbled over backward on the gravel, then popped up again spear in hand as Roy got out to face him.

"The Lord's after you!" shouted the attacker. "Better take cover!"

"You're after me," Roy shouted back. His temper, frayed by two days of driving and very little sleep, snapped. He yanked the spear out of the man's hands and clubbed him over the head with it. When the attacker dropped to his knees moaning, Roy swung it again into his temple. The other man dropped all the way to the ground.

Roy got back into the Caprice as a new wave of hail arrived. He needed to be out of the ditch before he bogged his tires. He dropped the gearshift into reverse and eased ever so gently on the accelerator. The old car lurched, one wheel whining with a familiar spinning noise, but the other bit and the cab jumped backward onto the road.

By the time he got sorted out which direction he needed to be going, the hail was drumming on the roof and windshield like a rain of gravel. Roy glanced through the gleaming dark at his former assailant. "Oh, hell," he told the cab. "Help those who can't help themselves. Don't be a dead Frog. Believe in dreams."

It was the end of the world. What was he supposed to do?

He hopped out again and dragged the crazy man into the back of the cab, leaving the spear behind. Still unconscious, his erstwhile assailant was already bleeding from dozens of hail cuts, and bruised in twice as many more places. "Moron," muttered Roy, and got back in front.



"You can't escape Him," whispered the crazy man in the back seat, his lips pressed against the plexiglass divider.

Roy yelped. He'd been focusing on how to get through Moline in the increasingly thick hail. The cab's windshield was cracking, and what he could see of the hood had developed a sort of inverse acne. He was damned glad he wasn't outside, and suddenly damned sorry the crazy man was inside.

"What I can't escape, shithead," Roy said, "is this hail and the fact that the Mississippi's out there somewhere."

"One of His biggest rivers." The guy sounded as proud as if he'd laid the Mississippi course himself.

Roy grunted. He hunched over the wheel, peering through the pale curtains of hail. "You can get out any time now," he finally said.

"No. I've got witnessing business further west. The Lord moves in mysterious ways. You're just His latest movement."

Roy glanced over his shoulder. The preacher's face was pressed against the plexi, flattening it so that he looked like someone found dead after three days face-down on a kitchen floor. His breath fogged the partition.

"Look," Roy said. "It's a cab. I'll give you a ride. But none of that spear shit, don't be preaching to me, and quit drooling on the back of my seat."

The preacher pushed himself away from the divider and settled in, looking almost normal for a moment, except for the wild glint in his eyes that was a maybe-mirror of the lightning outside. Thin as he was, the preacher was a big guy, dark skinned with a nose that wouldn't quit and hair that looked the color of ash in what little light Roy could see by.

"I'm sorry I hit you so hard," Roy added.

"No you're not, son." The preacher smiled. "You needed to do that. Turn left here, by the way."

"What?" Without really thinking it through, Roy swung the wheel left. Odd, the preacher calling him son. The guy was younger than Roy by at least a decade.

"You don't want the Interstate 74 bridge," said the preacher. "They're arresting people up there."

"You from here?"

"No, but I pay attention."

Like hell, Roy thought, recalling the spear, but he kept his mouth shut. It was the first time he'd been glad of the plexiglass divider.

"I'd try the railroad bridge," the preacher said after a few blocks. "It's at about 30th Street. Watch the signs."

Roy watched the signs. It felt like he'd been doing nothing but watching signs for three days now.



The hail slacked off as they reached the rail yards, changing to sheets of rain. Roy was just as glad to be shut of worrying about his windshield.

The rail yards were unfenced, so he found a culvert spanning the overflowing drainage ditch dividing the rail yards from 5th Avenue, the street he was now on. Roy stopped the car and thought it over for a moment.

"If they're arresting people on the Interstate," he said, "they're going to take a dim view of me driving over the railroad bridge."

The preacher leaned back up against the plexiglass. "Whole world's a dim view now, son, except in the light of God's eyes. I need to get over the river, too. This here's the best way to go."

"God told you that?"

The preacher's voice had an infuriating smugness. "Of course."

Roy sighed again. It made a certain kind of sense. He'd already gotten a lot further than he honestly would have expected to. He killed the headlights and put the cab into low gear before turning into the rail yards.

The old Caprice bounced over the track, making for the long graded ramp that led up to the railroad bridge. Except when riven in stark blue-white by lightning strikes, his goal was barely visible gleaming in stray light from buildings along the riverfront. Roy concentrated on his driving. The railroad ties tended to yank the cab in unexpected directions.

"Behold," the preacher intoned from his perch in the back seat, "tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now."

Despite himself, Roy grinned. This guy wouldn't give up. "Grievous rain is everywhere."

"Continuous daylight in Egypt right now, from what I heard on the radio." The preacher laughed, sharp and bitter. "Cooking their narrow brown asses. I think I'll take the rain. It is written that the Lord shall open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in His season, and to bless all the work of thine hand."

The old cab began to strain up the grade, wheels slipping on the mixed hail and gravel that lay on the ties. So far Roy hadn't seen any evidence of a roadblock. "Could your Lord bring the sunlight back?"

"And He made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies."

"You got that right."

They crested onto the bridge deck just as bright white lights came on, shining into Roy's eyes to the flicker of red, blue and yellow flashers.



Roy and the preacher were out of the cab, soaking wet as they leaned against the roof with their arms and legs spread wide. A cop -- Roy wasn't sure what kind of cop exactly, but he seemed to be a railroad employee -- patted down first him, then the preacher while two others had pistols out.

Roy didn't feel tempted to move.

"You're crazy to try this bridge," said one of the cops with a weapon drawn. They'd been waiting back on the bridge deck, hidden from Roy's approach. "What if a train caught you?"

"Ain't been a train in two days," the preacher said. "Ain't going to be no trains no more."

"You don't know that."

Roy heard the waver in the cop's voice. "We were just trying to get over the river," he said, hoping to speak to the man's uncertainty. "I've got to get home to Oregon, to my family."

"This is a stupid place to try it, friend."

"They're arresting on the Interstate bridges," the preacher said. "And the angel of the Lord said unto Manoah, though thou detain me, I will not eat of thy bread."

Lightning struck nearby, the thunder rolling over them all like a slap. Roy became very conscious of the fact that he was standing on an iron bridge in the worst storm in the history of the world. He could see the waters rushing through a gap in the ties at his feet, carrying dark lumps of debris he couldn't make out the details of in the eternal twilight.

Floodwaters.

"Just get out of here," said the railroad cop. "I don't even want to know your names. Go home."

"That's what I was trying to do," Roy grumbled.

"Come," said the preacher, "let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves. For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey: He hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed."

"Does he do that all the time?" the cop asked Roy, holstering his gun.

"Hell if I know. I think he makes it up. I only met him an hour ago when he attacked me with a spear."

The cop pulled his gun back out again. "Then what are you doing with him?"

Roy shrugged, which made his hands slip on the rain-slicked roof of the car. "He needed a ride, I'm driving a cab."

"With Massachusetts plates and some mediocre gang tagging on the door." The cop actually laughed. "You don't have a taxi permit to operate in Illinois or Iowa."

"And this will we do, if God permit," said the preacher.

Comprehension dawned on Roy. "That was a joke, wasn't it?"

"Look," said the cop to Roy, "he's crazy. You're half-crazy for putting up with him. But I still can't allow you to drive across the bridge."

"It is written that He shall scatter them beyond the river," the Preacher intoned. "God can't do that if we can't pass beyond the river. Can't go over the road bridges 'cause they're up there arresting everyone who's not from the Quad Cities."

"Jesus Christ," Roy shouted, "you make a virtue out of persistence, don't you?"

"All right," said the cop. "You're both totally bat shit. But you know what? I don't believe the sun's coming back anyway. Throwing you in our truck in cuffs isn't going to change that. Go on over the river and get the hell out of here."

The preacher smiled. "And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men. That's about all the Bible has to say about railroads, I'm afraid, but I offer you my blessings as well."

Roy smiled too, tentative. In the glare of their lights all three of the railroad cops looked tense and sad. He opened the door, got back into the cab, then rolled the window down. "Any of you need a ride west?"

"We got a job to do," said the cop who had patted him down. Their questioner just shook his head.

"Suit yourselves." He started the car. "And thanks."

The first cop, their questioner, leaned in the window. "You need a weapon?" he asked quietly.

Roy actually thought about that for a moment. "No, I don't think so. But thanks."

Then they were off, bouncing over the bridge. Roy didn't realize how much he'd been sweating until the heater started to dry him off and he could smell himself.

"Where you actually going?" he finally asked the preacher.

"West. I've got witnessing to do."

"Well, thank you for your help back there."

"You really want to thank the Lord."

Roy glanced up through the windshield into the rain clouds. He didn't feel very thankful in that direction.

"You can't escape Him," whispered the preacher.



The Cab Driver

The preacher got out on a lonely roadside mile in the middle of Iowa, to a swirl of the smell of hogs and damp corn and a final blessing. Roy gave the man his cell phone -- it hadn't worked since the end had come, and he figured maybe God would grant the preacher a miracle. There sure wasn't anyone else to talk to out there.

The miles went on and on after that.

Roy was surprised at how many people were glad to see him coming. The further west he got, the more rare news was. He could trade tales of the road for food and gas and a warm hour or two next to a wood stove or a fire. The rain had turned to sleet, then to snow, but the wind kept it from banking up too badly on the roads at first.

He gave rides to at least a dozen more people past Iowa City, finally driving the Interstates because the side roads were too few, and too clogged with the rising snow that even the wind, after a time, could not overcome. Every day he made fewer and fewer miles.

"You're never going to get through Wyoming," said an architect he'd picked up just outside of Grand Island, Nebraska. The architect was an older woman, so wrapped in coats Roy couldn't tell how big she was, sitting in front with him. A couple of teenagers trying to get to Julesburg, Colorado, boy and girl that were either in love or terrified out of their wits, were wedged in the back with a terrier he'd found shivering in an empty gas station restroom.

Roy had already figured he wasn't going to make it. Wyoming was a bit of a tough drive even when times were good and gas was plentiful. He just wished he could have talked to Ellen and Adrien one more time. "I'm going to try."

She put a hand on his, her puffy ski glove rasping on his skin. "I've got people in Cheyenne. Lay up with us until this either passes or ends."

"I'm not going to be a dead Frog," he said. "I've learned more in the past week, driving this old taxi into Hell, than I ever did in my life." Roy reached across the wheel with his other hand and patted hers. "I owe it to my family to keep going as far as I can. I owe it to you, and them," he nodded toward the back seat, "and God, if He exists."

"You're a good man," said the architect.

They didn't speak again for miles, simply listening to the sheet metal of the car groan in the cold, and the heavy breathing of the kids in the back seat.



The windshield cracked badly coming in to Cheyenne, from the hail damage and the extreme cold, so that it hung in a loose web of tiny blocks. He would almost have preferred it shatter completely, but at least it still kept some of the air out. The last couple of times they'd found gas, he'd been afraid to shut the engine off. Pumps weren't working any more, not without power, which meant he had to find gas cans or siphon fuel from abandoned vehicles. At least people had shifted from fear and suspicion to a sort of pleasant resignation. Some had been downright helpful.

He hadn't seen another vehicle on the highway for over a day, not even a police cruiser or a National Guard truck.

The architect was stretched out in the back, sleeping curled up with the dog. A parka-clad Japanese tourist, a young guy with a bad haircut and earnest eyes, slumped in the front seat, playing with the settings on his digital camera and smiling at Roy from time to time. Roy couldn't figure out if he spoke English or not. They'd found him trudging down the highway in Nebraska close to the Wyoming border.

When the windshield snapped, with a noise like a foot the size of a house walking on snow, the Japanese tourist shouted something in his own language, then covered his mouth. In the back, the architect moaned. Even with the heat full on, the car was cold enough that Roy could see his breath. Outside air leaked in around the broken windshield.

He slowed down, leaned forward a little, and peered through the crazed glass. It was something like what spiders saw, he thought, if there were any spiders left. The air was so cold, even in the car, that his lungs burned with each breath, and his ribs ached. His sense of smell had deserted him completely, leaving him with the taste of brass in his mouth.

Drifts towered on both sides of the road. A lot of buildings were completely hidden. It was like driving through a soft-bottomed, pale white canyon. The architect woke up and whispered directions to him, many of which were useless in the piled snow, though he eventually found the part of town she wanted. Cheyenne wasn't very big, really.

"You coming in?" she asked from the back.

"No." He stared at the dashboard. "I'm going to keep going."

"You're not going to last out the day."

Roy met her eyes. "How much longer do you have wherever you're going?"

"Something might happen in time."

"Something might. But I've got to get home. And somebody might need a ride a little further down the road."

She nodded, then poked her finger through one of the holes drilled in the plexi, nudging the Japanese kid. "Come on. Warm inside. Food."

He looked at Roy, who nodded and made shooing motions. The kid got out while Roy thought about the architect's offer. Warm sounded good. So did food. He hadn't eaten in a couple of days. None of them had, not even the dog.

"The grace of God and the gift of a taxicab got me this far," he said, thinking of the French officers drinking by the Mekong. "All I can do is keep going." His words were sharp and frozen in the air inside the car.

The dog hopped in the front as the Japanese kid closed the door, and laid its head on Roy's lap. He turned on the roof sign, in case someone needed a ride, dropped it into gear, and eased away from the two dark figures already burrowing through a snow bank toward some hidden door. The tires slid on the ice, and he was colder than he ever thought possible, but Roy kept heading west, talking to his wife and child as he drove.

◊ ◊ ◊


© 2004, 2007 Joseph E. Lake Jr.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Tags: fiction, stories
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