San Diego, CA.
May 4 – one year after the Bloomington Blast
Oliver Wells drew an exhausted breath as he stepped out of the deplane tunnel and into the airport lobby. His weary eyes scanned the blank faces of those who trolled about at the midnight hour. Though he knew it wasn’t possible, Oliver entertained the idea that the same oblivious souls who ignored his departure fifteen months prior were present to ignore his return.
Nothing has changed.
The same dank smell of cleaning chemicals assaulted Oliver’s nose just as they did before. The same broken electronic kiosk remained under repair. Even the advertisements shouted the same message from a year ago in their gaudy backlit colors. It was as if the entire San Diego International Airport had been perfectly preserved in a protective bubble, completely untouched by the hands of time.
Why did I come back?
“Holding up the line, Shaggy,” a man barked from behind.
Oliver snapped to attention. Shaggy? He looked behind himself to realize he blocked the exit for a number of passengers who flashed him glares of disdain without so much a stutter in their own cell phone conversations. Oliver stepped to the side. Before he could apologize, the offended blew past to continue their business.
The sight of the cell phones reminded Oliver of his own. He fumbled inside his duffle bag to retrieve a phone wrapped in a filthy ziplock bag along with a house key and a wad of carefully folded paper money from various countries. The phone appeared alien to Oliver as he palmed it for the first time in several months. To his surprise, the dark display and blank reflective screen provided a crude mirror. Oliver recognized only the cold, blue eyes of the thirty-five year old that stared back at him—a scruffy brown beard and long, matted hair obscured the remainder of his face.
Who was this guy?
Oliver turned his phone on. When the device finally booted up, it occurred to him—who would he call?
No wife or child awaited Oliver’s return. His cousin would be too eager to pick up and ask where the money he owed him is. Jeff? Michael? Gretchen? The phone’s depleted battery solved the dilemma.
Oliver casually tossed the phone into a garbage can as he exited the terminal. The weary traveler stepped out onto the sidewalk to find himself immediately accosted by a Prius taxi driver desperate to earn a fare.
“Where to?” the cabbie offered a kind Latino smile as he took Oliver’s duffle bag. The man’s silver hair and laugh lines hinted at a confidence Oliver longed for.
“I used to live in Orange County,” managed Oliver. He wondered if his house was still standing and if the teenage neighbor he’d paid in advance to tend the lawn lived up to his promise.
“Used to? Is that where you want to go? Long drive. Should’ve flown into John Wayne.”
Ollie hunched his shoulders. “You want the fare or what?”
The cabbie looked Oliver up and down, his smile noticeably absent. “You have cash?”
Oliver lifted up a wad of twenty and fifty dollar bills. The cabbie’s smile returned as he opened the passenger door.
Traffic proved unusually sparse as the cab sped up the northbound five. Unable to sleep, Oliver stared blankly out the window, watching the lights flicker by in various rhythms. Thirty minutes into the drive, they coasted along the Pacific just north of Oceanside—one of the few stretches of freeways in Southern California not littered with homes or industry, illuminated only by the starry night sky and the headlamps of cars.
Oliver studied his driver through the rearview mirror, who hummed along to the mariachi songs that were emitted from the radio in low volume. That’s when Oliver noticed a familiar object resting on the cabbie’s dashboard.
“That book. It’s yours?” Oliver asked.
The cabbie smiled. “This?” he responded, holding the paperback up. The faded cover proudly announced Our Secret History in bold bronzed letters that hovered ominously over a group of men in dark cloaks, their faces masked by shadows. Behind them, a tree of light branched up majestically toward the book’s title. “Who else’s would it be?”
“Right,” sighed Oliver. Published twenty or so years ago, Our Secret History was written by the eccentric billionaire Lord Montague Graves. It portrayed a controversial esoteric view of the entire world’s history from the dawn of man. Each chapter exposed classified documents, alternative theological texts, ancient alien theories, transcribed oral histories, and new age thinking. Such a cocktail of ideas invited ridicule from the general public. The work proved disastrous and led to near financial ruin for the publisher, White Tower Books. To find a physical, paperback copy that survived the retailers’ purge was nearly impossible, and here, this cabbie from San Diego had one on his dashboard.
“It’s not that, it’s just—” Oliver reached into his duffle bag and produced his own worn out copy. “It’s a rare book. Not many people have read it, let alone owned it.”
“I see,” said the cabbie. “How did you come across it?”
“Read it as a kid—I was into anything that bent toward the unusual or fantastic back then. Lost track of it as I grew up. Then, when my wife—” Oliver choked on his tongue. Really? She’s been gone a year! Oliver swallowed. “The book turned up when I was selling off some old things. I thumbed through it again. It inspired me to travel, actually.”
“Stonehenge, Jerusalem, Tibet—places I’ve just always wanted to go to since reading about them. There are a lot of silly ideas about history in this book, probably none of which are true, but the destinations are real.” Oliver hid his copy away. It all sounded so childish now.
“Most history is written through the lens of victory and power,” the cabbie mused. “That same lens will blur any details that surround its focus on ‘truth.’”
“I’m an accountant,” explained Oliver, surprised he still described himself by a job he hadn’t held for a year. “Things either add up or they don’t. Therein lies truth.”
“So—do things add up for you?”
Oliver grimaced. He had strictly followed the tried and true Wells Family Formula for Success during most of his life. He became an accountant like his father and his father’s father. He married a beautiful, prominent business woman at the age of twenty-five, bought a modest three-bedroom single-detached home, all of which were supposed to add up and equal “happy.” But he wasn’t happy. Happiness didn’t enter the equation until he met Audrey, the woman who would prove to be the love of his life. In a random moment of chance, she’d received his order by accident at a coffee shop. The instant their eyes met to exchange drinks, any and all math that had ruled Oliver’s world seemed to break down. A messy divorce led to a second wedding and the birth of a beautiful baby girl, Ava, followed by the eight most glorious years of Oliver’s personal life. Professionally he took a hit—his ex-wife saw to that. Even when investments went bad and money became tight, Oliver didn’t seem to care. All he needed was Audrey and Ava for the equation to balance and equal happiness.
Then in a flash he’d lost them both. A small piece of debris shot up from an explosion over Kansas, Kansas of all godforsaken places, and started a fire in the airliner’s engine. No one survived the crash. How the hell does that add up?
“It doesn’t, does it?” The cabbie flashed his knowing smile again in the rear view mirror. “That’s why you found the book again. The ideas in it inspired you to search for another truth. Your own truth.”
Oliver leaned back in his seat, now regretting the conversation. “Maybe. I don’t know. Doesn’t everyone do that?”
“Many are satisfied with the truth provided to them.”
Oliver closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. Stop talking. Please, just stop.
“So did you find it? Did you find your truth?”
“I’d rather not go into it.” Why am I philosophizing with a cabbie?
“If you don’t know, then you didn’t find it, Oliver.”
The accountant’s eyes popped open. The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. “I don’t recall giving you my name.”
“You didn’t.” Wheels screeched as the cabbie abruptly turned the car off the freeway and exited onto a bumpy dirt road. Oliver had driven this stretch of freeway probably a hundred times, but never noticed such a road’s existence. If one hadn’t known exactly where the path lies, he or she would surely miss it.
“What the—what are you doing? Is something wrong with the car?” yelled a jostled Oliver.
The cab skidded to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dust that glowed an eerie red from the brake lights. “Relax, Oliver. Nothing is wrong with the car.”
“Why did you pull over? How do you know my name?”
The cabbie turned around to face Oliver. His smile was absent again, but a great calm remained about him despite his passenger’s nervousness. “You’re at a crossroads,” he answered.
“What the hell are you talking about? The freeway is right over there! All you had to do was drive straight to remain on it!”
“You can return to the freeway if you want,” the cabbie hunched his shoulders. “But I’ve been sent to make you aware of another path.”
“What?” Oliver kicked open his door, threw his duffle bag onto the dirt, and frantically climbed out of the car. The cabbie followed. “Stay away from me!” Oliver stretched his arms out as if to hold the man at bay. “I said stay away!”
“Take the moment, Oliver. You’ll need a clear head to make your decision,” the cabbie replied with a nod.
Oliver surveyed his surroundings. It was probably three hundred meters to the empty freeway. There were no other cars in sight that he could flag down for help. To the opposite side was a desert brush that faded into the soft outlines of starlit foothills. For all intents and purposes, he was stranded alone with this mad cabbie.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” the cabbie promised. “If that were my goal, there were opportunities I could have leveraged to do so.”
Oliver calmed his breathing and eased his arms, if only a little. “Who are you?”
“Tonight, I’m only a guide, sent to show you a path. A path that may lead to what has eluded you for the past fifteen months, if not your entire life.”
Oliver winced. “How do you know what I’m looking for? I don’t even know what I’m looking for!” His yell echoed across the desert.
The cabbie hunched. “I know that a year ago you had a dream—a very powerful and lucid dream. A dream that followed a funeral, that revealed a forgotten book, and prompted a grand journey across the world that would ultimately lead you here, to this very moment, with me.”
The cabbie put his hands casually behind his back and looked up at the full moon. “You are not the only one who had the dream, Oliver. There were others.”
“Were others?” Oliver asked. He didn’t find the past tense very comforting.
“We had given up hope there were any of you left. One by one, they all disappeared. We assumed he had something to do with that.”
The cabbie’s eyes locked with Oliver’s. “The farmer. The farmer in your dream.”
A dream I’ve told no one about—ever. “This is crazy. You’re crazy. How on earth could I possibly trust what you’re saying?”
The cabbie lifted his copy of Our Secret History into view. “We read the same book.”
“That book is a fantasy!”
“Oliver, I’m not here to debate with you. I’ve been sent to show you two paths. There,” the cabbie pointed to the freeway, still vacant of car activity. “There is the freeway. You are free to return to it and the life you left over a year ago.”
Oliver sighed. He turned to the opposite direction, examining the rocky dirt road that faded into a small valley between the foothills. “What’s over there?”
“The road less traveled.”
Oliver grimaced. “Right! Of course it is!”
“That road leads to what you have sought all along, Oliver.” The cabbie opened the driver’s door.
“And what is that?”
“Answers.” The cabbie started the car’s engine and closed his door.
Oliver’s eyes widened. “Wait, are you—? Are you leaving?” The cab’s engine revved. Oliver yanked on the passenger door handle only to find it locked. Despite Oliver’s protesting and pounding on the windows, the cab driver didn’t offer so much as a glance. “You can’t leave me here!”
The Prius spat up a fresh cloud of dirt as it peeled away and joined the freeway, heading north.
Ollie laced his fingers on top of his head as he watched the cab’s rear lights disappear around the bend on the horizon. “That son of a bitch.”
(Copyright 2014. Dave Cravens.)
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