Hey, Rob here. I don’t want to give anything away before you listen to this next story, so I’ll just set it up by saying our protagonist, Tom, is a desperate guy, at the end of his rope, and that the end of that rope might not be as cleanly cut as he expected.
Listen to the Audio (25 min):
Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes
Read the Story (3,800 words / 14-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
Tom knew it was the end. He didn’t want it, but it was the only way. He could never pay back Bronson, not in a million years. So he was dead anyway. A dead man walking.
As he reached the middle of the bridge, he shivered and looked down at the churning water two hundred or so feet below. The suicide provision in his life insurance had expired, so Heather would get the money. If he was going to go, at least he would do it by taking care of her and screwing an insurance company. The thought made him smile as he climbed the barrier, standing on its edge, holding lightly onto the cold railing behind him. The wind whistled through his hair, reminding him of the time they walked over this very same bridge, kissing and laughing while the wind blew their hair into each other’s faces.
He let one hand go to wipe his eyes. Heather. I’m sorry it had to be this way, babe.
A minute or two passed, and as the cars whizzed by – he never noticed how many cars were on Route 80 at three in the morning – one of their headlights caught something shiny to his left, something blue. It was a small sign affixed to the nearest stantion. As the next truck illuminated the sign, he read: The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic.
He laughed. “You think?” And he imagined another small blue sign floating on the river directly below, that might say: The water you are about to enter is wet.
As another flurry of cars passed, he noticed more words at the bottom of the sign: Make The Call. And directly below that a telephone. He toyed with the idea of picking up the phone, just to see if someone would actually answer. Maybe they’d offer him the thirty thousand dollars Bronson was willing to kill him for. But he knew that was just more stalling. Enough was enough.
Very bright, shiny metallic. No walls, not square, more like a circle. With a chair in the middle. He was sitting in the chair. There was a small table next to him.
It wasn’t what he expected – he was thinking it would be just empty darkness, or maybe a tunnel of light, more floatingy than sittingy. And no chairs. No tables.
Squinting into the bright light, he saw a figure walking toward him, hooded, in a flowing robe.
Tom rushed up to the figure and hugged him. “Jesus!” Tears immediately streamed from his eyes.
“Really. Do I look like Jesus?”
Tom looked up to the shrouded face, tears still in his eyes, puzzled. “God?”
“I… I don’t understand. This is heaven, right?”
The figure gently wriggled its way out of Tom’s hug. “No. We usually tell your species it’s purgatory. Provides a familiar frame of reference, although it’s still not correct.”
“Have I done something wrong? Jumping off the bridge?” He began to kneel.
The figure reached out and lifted Tom before his knees could touch the floor. “Stop. No, you’re fine. We caught you right before you terminated your body’s functioning. To do some tests and things.”
“Okay, honestly, your species is always passed out, drugged or otherwise incoherent by the time they get here, and if not they go insane in the first couple of seconds of my greeting. But since you’ve made it this far with your normal brain function intact, I’m required to tell you: I’m from a system three hundred light years from here. Our species examines and tests other naturally occurring species throughout the quadrant. I’m assigned to pick up humans and fortexians from this sector.”
“Don’t stop me, we’ll be here forever. We pick up humans from Earth who have decided to end their lives. We take them and put them back exactly where they were within the span of twelve milliseconds. Though from your perspective, the whole thing will last three and a half hours. Then you go back to your previous process, which in your case is jumping off a bridge, which leads directly to cessation of life function. Death. Then you can go to heaven, or hell, or purgatory, or wherever you think you go.”
“I… don’t understand.”
The figure tapped his foot, impatient. “Okay, how much do you know about spacetime, gravitational waves, and closed timelike curves?”
Tom felt queasy. He staggered back to the chair and sat down. “Spacewhat?”
“I didn’t think so. Okay, imagine a tortilla. A big round one.” Instantly, a hologram of a big round tortilla appeared in the air between the figure and Tom. The figure pointed to one end. “Now imagine you want to get to the other end. How do you get there?”
“You eat it?”
“No. No. Let’s say you walk there. Now, is there a way you can make that distance shorter?”
Tom couldn’t think straight. Wasn’t this the end? Why was he getting a cosmology lesson? He didn’t know anything about cosmology. He shook his head.
“You FOLD the tortilla. Now what do you have?”
Tom tried hard to solve the puzzle. “A, um, fold in spacetime?”
“No. A taco! Now you eat it.” The holographic folded tortilla floating between them suddenly filled with meat, cheese, sour cream, and salsa, and the figure pretended to eat it until it disappeared. “Mmmm. Actually you were right. It creates a fold in spacetime. Very good. I’m impressed. The fold lets us travel very far, very fast. Or in this case, we remain stationary and the Earth goes very far, very fast. So time essentially slows down, letting us do our thing, and return you twelve milliseconds later.”
“You just used a taco to describe how spacetime works.”
The figure chuckled, removed its hood. “Yes. I like tacos. Your species makes excellent tacos. We don’t have tacos back home.”
Tom, wiping the last of the tears from his eyes, took his first long look at the revealed face. Gray skin, big black eyes, slits for nostrils, bald. “Hey. You’re an alien. This is an alien abduction, right? Don’t you grab people from their bedrooms? Like on farms and stuff?”
“First of all, you have hair growing out from your armpits, so who’s the alien? I am Claren, Level Four Tenik. To me, you’re the alien. And second, we don’t do the bedroom thing anymore. When the Level Eights found out, they were PISSED.”
“You can stop saying that. I’ll assume you don’t understand anything. The Level Eight Council said it wasn’t ethical. That we were only allowed to take humans that had decided to voluntarily opt-out of life functions, as the procedures are fairly invasive.”
“Now, if you’ll sign this form right here, just need your consent, right there on the little x…”
Claren handed Tom the form and a pen.
“Wait. Can I read this first?”
Rolling his eyes, Claren began tapping his foot again. “Of course.”
Four sentences into the twenty-three page form, another question popped into Tom’s mind. “Hey. If everyone’s either drugged, or passed out, or insane, how do they sign this form?”
Claren grasped Tom’s hand gingerly and started to sign his name for him. “You know… like guiding it a little… like this…”
Tom jerked his hand back. “Wow. Talk about unethical.”
“Hey. Two milliseconds ago you were trying to kill yourself. Now you’re lecturing me on ethics?”
Then Tom had an idea. “I’ll make you a deal.”
Claren smiled. His job was monumentally boring, but at least this human was keeping it interesting. “A deal? I think you know that’s not how this works.”
“You get thirty thousand dollars to Heather, to pay off that monster Bronson, that’ll help her keep the insurance money, and I’ll sign your form.”
“Sure. I’ll just stroll into a Seven-Eleven and withdraw thirty thousand dollars from my Earth Bank checking account, then drive in a stolen car over to this person Bronson’s house and hand him a brown paper bag filled with cash. No. Impossible. And besides, I would get in a very large – ‘terminal’ might be the right word – amount of trouble if I even tried. It’s against about fifteen regulations.”
“Regulations? Then how do you get your hands on our tacos?”
“Yeah. I’m sure. Well, Claren, I’m not signing.”
Claren sighed. “Everyone signs. It just happens. Every time. But you’re the first I’ve had that’s been legally coherent this long. I suppose you could refuse. If you do… But you’ll sign. I know it.” He pulled out a small device and tapped it. Instantly several panels appeared on the circular wall, and Claren walked over to them. “I’ve got other work to do. We’ll be there in about half an hour. Make yourself comfortable. And there’s the pen.”
So this was it. The twelve millisecond space between his sacrificial jump off the bridge and his meeting with Saint Peter at the pearly gates would be filled with God knows what. Needles? Surgery? Electrocution? Anal probes?
“Hey. Claren. Is there anal probing? I’ve heard about anal probes on the Discovery Channel.”
Claren kept his head fixed on the panel before him. “I’m not listening…”
“Come on. I deserve to know. Anal probes or not?”
Claren squirmed visibly. “Ugh. Okay. Yes. Makes me uncomfortable even thinking about it.”
“So… you have an anus?”
“Of course I have an anus. Where do you think the shit comes out?”
And they laughed together.
Tom leaned forward. “What color is it?”
“Brown, just like yours.” And they grinned at each other.
Tom noticed a hair hanging from the sleeve of his shirt. A single, long blonde hair that had somehow clutched on strong enough to stay there through his fall. Heather’s. “You know, Heather says she never poops. And for all I know she could be telling the truth. She’s extremely private, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
Tom stood abruptly. “You know? About Heather?”
“No, no. I meant I know what it’s like to love someone who’s extremely private.”
Claren turned from his panels. “Why is that so hard to imagine?”
“Maybe because your species it secretly plucking humans at the lowest moments in their lives, and screwing with them in God knows what horrible ways.”
Claren glared, walked over and pushed the twenty-three page form towards Tom. “You have reading to do. And I have work to do.”
Claren fumed while he worked. It wasn’t his fault this was happening to the human. It was just a job. Just a soul-sucking job. And yes, the ethics were fuzzy. But it was for the good of all involved, couldn’t the human see that? He had to remind himself what he’d been taught throughout years of training and reinforcement: that the humans’ small sacrifice – they’d be dying momentarily after all – would help the entire species of Teniks survive disease and death as they spread through the cosmos. It would be as if an apple that had already fallen from the tree, never to be eaten, could be picked up from the ground to give its sustenance to a hungry mouth, and fulfill its destiny.
Maybe if he told the apple story to the human, Tom, he would understand. And sign the form.
He decided against it. It sounded like bullshit.
Maybe it was bullshit.
Apples don’t talk back to you, or have wives who never poop, or make you laugh.
“Is thirty thousand dollars a lot of Earth money? I’m only familiar with tacos, which are a dollar ninety-nine. Plus tax.”
“Yeah. It’s too much money.”
“What can you buy on Earth for thirty thousand dollars? Other than fifteen-thousand tacos?”
“A car, I guess. A down payment on a home. A few nice vacations. Bad luck.”
“Okay, let’s say your wife’s mom gets sick, and something gets screwed up with her insurance, so you get stuck with a bill. So you borrow where you can. But then you have the brilliant idea of winning back the money, because you’re quite the poker player, and you’re doing great. Almost home. But the bad luck comes, and with it a guy named Bronson, and you keep getting deeper and deeper. That’s what you can buy with thirty thousand dollars.”
Tom sighed and smiled, waved Claren over. “Pull up a chair. You got a hologram of a deck of cards?”
Claren tapped on the panel. “Hmm. As a matter of fact our database has one right here.” Instantly another chair rose from the floor, and a virtual deck of cards appeared in front of Tom. Claren sat down, and Tom shuffled the cards. “Texas Hold’em. It’s a five card game, but you only get two to start.” He dealt two cards face down. “You’re trying to get the best five-card hand: pairs, three-of-a-kind, straights, flushes.”
“I’m completely lost.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll walk you through as we play.”
Claren picked up his two cards. “I have a picture of a man with a sword, and a picture of a woman.”
“Okay. Rule one: don’t tell me what cards you have. But okay, that’s a king of spades and a queen of diamonds. You’re in good shape.” He turned over one more card. Another king. “Well lookey here. You’ve already got a pair of kings. If we were betting, I’d be going in pretty strong right about now if I were you.” One more card, and then finally another king. “Woah. Your first hand ever, and you’ve got three kings. You win.”
Claren beamed. “I’m a pretty good Texas Hold’em player, aren’t I?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go strutting into a Vegas casino just yet, but you’re on your way. Another hand?”
“Yes. I’d like to beat you again.”
Tom laughed and dealt another hand. “So, they don’t have cards where you come from?”
“No.” He tapped his chin. “But we do have a game called Death From Within.”
“Death From Within? Christ, that’s a game?”
“It’s really kind of fun. Small metal figurines, the Outsiders, rotate around a board, and in the middle, the Within, has to try to knock them off. The Outsiders have to form teams to protect each other and fight back.”
“The middle usually wins. But when the Outsiders win, there’s quite the celebration. I remember one time…” and Claren drifted off into thought.
Eventually he returned. “Tom. You didn’t really want to die, did you?”
Tom shook his head.
“But you realize, without your consent, you’ll go back and die the moment you hit that water anyway, right?”
Tom nodded. He picked up the form. “And what happens to you if I don’t consent?”
Claren hesitated. Showed his cards. A pair of tens. He won again. “My only job is to get your consent. One way or the other. I have no value otherwise.”
“To the Level Eights, life is cheap. Let’s just say we have more in common than you think.” Claren gathered the cards into a neat pile and shuffled them. “One more hand? I’ll let you win this time.”
“We’re here.” A small red light blinked above them. “In a few moments the Level Eights will arrive.”
Tom stood, the virtual cards falling to the floor. He took a deep breath. Gagged. “What the hell is that smell?”
“It’s a new thing the Level Eights are trying out. Aromas to make the humans feel more relaxed on arrival. It’s supposed to smell like a morning coffee.”
“Yeah, well it smells like cat piss. Not relaxing.”
“I’ll pass that along.”
Tom rushed over to Claren. “Now. Turn around. Face the wall.”
Claren didn’t know what to make of the request. He’d never heard anything like it before. Was this human going to kill him? Did he plan to escape or something? But Tom had been surprisingly kind and calm. He thought he trusted him. So he reluctantly turned and faced the wall.
He felt pressure on his back. The tip of the pen. Tom was going to stab him with the pen! He whirled around, knocking the pen out of Tom’s hand, and curled his fists to defend himself against the attack.
Instead, in Tom’s other hand, he saw the form.
“Listen, Claren. I would love a second chance. But I made my bed. I get it. I decided to die and that’s going to happen. What’s the point of you getting hurt too?”
Claren had a hard time finding his breath. “You… for me…?”
“Life isn’t cheap. I don’t care what the Level Eights think. I know that now. You’ve given me some time to think.” Tom grinned and patted Claren on the arm. “Hey, lookey here. You said you’d get me to sign. One way or the other. Good job.” And they both laughed.
At that moment, the door opened.
Three Level Eights stood in the doorway, looking mildly surprised that the human was still on its feet.
Claren quickly reached out and snatched the form from Tom, folding it against his chest. He turned to the Level Eights and smiled. Then he pulled out his small device and tapped it.
Tom knew this time he was in heaven. He could sense the peace throughout his body, the soft sounds of water played in his ears, and the light now was brighter than anything he’d ever seen. He wondered if he’d really meet God this time, and if God wore a robe. He felt so light, he thought he might be just a little whisp of wind. So he reached up to his face, to feel if it was still solid, and felt… gravel?
Suddenly his eyes shot open. He was laying face down on Route 80, in the middle of the bridge. And that bright light, the brightest he’d ever seen? A tractor trailer barreling toward him, going way over the speed limit.
He screamed and curled into a ball, and somehow, miraculously, watched the underside of the tractor trailer hurtle inches over his body, hugging him between its giant tires.
And once again, blackness.
But this time it was just the blackness of the middle of the morning, on the middle of a bridge. He rolled to the shoulder before the next car might kill him – that would be ironic, wouldn’t it – and took several deep breaths. No cat piss smell. Good. Just the salt in the air from the river below. And the smell of asphalt. He had never loved the smell of asphalt until this very moment.
He was alive!
When he was ready, he stood. And put his brain back together. Logically, he should have returned to Route 80, but somewhere inches above the water, about to smack into it hard enough to explode his internal organs and break every bone in his body. But something happened. Something didn’t go according to plan.
Or did it?
Claren. He remembered that last moment now. The smile on Claren’s face. The tap on the device. Being alive right now wasn’t an accident.
He rushed to the phone under the little blue sign that said Make The Call.
“Hello? Hello? Hello?”
Just buzzing. He knew it. It seemed like a good public service initiative, but did he really think a fake-looking phone would work on the middle of a bridge in the middle of Route 80? He slammed the receiver down.
Wait. Had he heard something, something just as he hung up?
He picked up the receiver again. “Hello?”
“Hello. This is Katie. Are you in crisis?”
“Yes! I mean no! I mean, I was, but not now. Just listen – I need you to call someone. Can you patch someone in, like a conference call?”
“I don’t… I’m not sure…”
“It’s a matter of life and death.” It was a lie. There was no way he was throwing away his life again. But he really wanted Katie to make the call for him.
“Okay, sir, I’ll try…”
He gave her the digits, and way too many seconds later, after lots of clicking and buzzing, this: “This is Heather. What is all this?”
“I love you, Heather.”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Katie, ma’am, I’m connecting-“
“Shut up, Katie. No Heather, it’s me. Tom. I’m so sorry. I’ve done something really stupid, but it doesn’t matter-“
“I’ll say you did something stupid. You left your phone here. I’ve been worried about you for five hours. Where the hell have you been?”
“He’s on the Madison Bridge on Route 80, this is the suic-“
“SHUT UP, KATIE!”
“Heather. I’ve had some time to think. And it’s not going to be easy, but I promise-“
“Hold on, babe. You’re phone’s buzzing. You’re getting some texts. From somebody named Bronson. Who’s Bronson?”
The irony would be hilarious if it didn’t mean he’d be dying again tonight. He almost laughed. But he didn’t want to die. Not again. He knew he had to come clean with Heather, though. It was time. He exhaled. “He’s just a guy I know. Can you… read them to me?”
“Okay… the first one says ‘Hey Dickface.’”
Tom’s heart sank even further. “Go on…”
“The second one says ‘We’re square.’ I have no idea what that means.”
Tom’s heart stopped. “What? That’s it?”
“No. There’s one more. It says ‘Bag of tacos was a nice touch. You know where to reach me if you need me.’ What is all this, babe? Are you in trouble?”
Tom laughed. He laughed the laugh of a thousand tons of pressure being lifted from your chest, of a new day dawning, full of promise, and hope, and second chances.
“No babe. I’m not in trouble. Just delete those texts, and delete him from my contacts. I had a pretty crazy night, but I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.”
He hung up, and strolled along Route 80, as the first hint of the sun lit the sky orange. The wind whistled in his hair.
He raised his eyes to the single cloud above him, and said with a grin, “Thanks, Claren.”
And he continued down the road, toward home, knowing that this moment was the farthest thing from the end.
It was the beginning.