Excerpt for Phantasmagorical by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



© 2017 by Darrell Shaffer Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying without written permission of the publisher or author. The exception would be in the case of brief quotations embodied in the critical articles or reviews and pages where permission is specifically granted by the author.

Table of Contents

Act 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Act 2

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Act 3

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Act 4

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Other Projects

Letter From The Author

Act 1

Phantasmagorical: A series of random events in a dreamlike state

Devonte - Chapter 1

The music is loud, we’re packed six deep in this little car and I’m having a blast. I wasn’t sure if California was the right place for me, but now I know. I’d never had any girls pay attention to me back home. It was only the first week of class and Jessica already gave me more attention than I had ever gotten back home. She invited me out tonight to party with her friends and they’re all cool people. They thought it would be a cool idea to head out to the desert and stargaze tonight. It sounded silly to me, watching stars, but they were all dead set on the idea.

The desert is a lot different than I thought it would be. Growing up in the city, all I knew is it was hot and there was a lot of sand. It’s kind of chilly out here tonight, wish I brought a jacket. Jessica convinced me to leave it behind, I love that jacket. The car comes to a stop and the engine clinks as we start to pile out of the car.

The desert is more beautiful than I could ever imagine it to be. I don’t really care for all the sand but everything else is amazing. I’d never seen so many stars at once in my life. So many different sized stars and even colors. Looking up from the city I never saw anything like that. The sky showing brilliant colors illuminated by the light from the stars. A solitary bird flies across the sky lurching at bugs in what seems to be slow motion. It’s silent but the wind whistles and every now and then, an animal cries out in the night. Maybe a coyote off in the distance or an armadillo somewhere nearby. Do armadillo’s make noise?

I’d always preferred making abstract art. Being out here in the desert on a wide-open night, I understand how artists could spend their entire careers painting landscapes. There’s so much to take in here in the middle of nowhere. What was that guy’s name? Bob Ross, that’s him. Happy little trees, no mistakes, only happy little accidents and all that. I get it now. I get why he painted landscapes all the time. Maybe that’s why he was so happy all the time.

“Earth to Devon, paging Devon,” Jessica calls out to me and I snap back to reality.

“Actually, it’s Devonte”

“Oops, sorry, didn’t mean that,” the smile melts away my mild annoyance of being called the wrong name.

“Hey Jessica, what’s going on?”

“We’re going to start a camp fire over there, if you want to come join us sometime”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be there in a second”

Jessica and her friends are sitting around the fire gossiping and seem to stop almost on cue as I approach. Then they’re right back to talking. I take the spot next to Jessica and listen in trying to pick a spot to join the conversation. I’m not good at conversation but I told myself if I came out here, I would at least try.

“So Devonte, my man. You’re not from around here. Where you from and what you doing here,” Mike asks. Mike asks too many questions. Everything turns into twenty-one questions with him.

“I wanted to go to art school.”

“So you want to be an artist.”

“I mean yeah, don’t we all.”

“Okay, fine you want to be an artist. We go to art school we all do. But you didn’t have to come to California for that?”

“I didn’t have to.”

“You’re not giving me much to work with here.”

“You’re not asking much?”

“If we’re going to be friends tell us about yourself.”

“I came to California because I wanted a fresh start.”

“You’re like what? Eighteen, or nineteen, maybe even seventeen. Why would you need a fresh start?”

“If I told you I killed a man at sixteen would you believe me,” I chuckle at my own joke.

“I probably would because you’re a fucking creep and we should have never brought you here with us. You’ve done nothing but stare off into space since we got in the car. What kind of drugs are you on? I’d love to take a bit”

“Okay Mike, that’s enough,” Jessica jumped in before things got serious between Mike and I.

Jessica and Tammy quickly diffuse the situation, changing the topic to rumors about professors around campus. Mike keeps staring at me, hands clenched into tight fists. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me, which is fine. I don’t really care if he doesn’t like me. I’ve dealt with people like Mike my entire life. People who think everyone is competition for everything they want in life. People who think stomping on the little guy will make them more popular. I hate Mike, and I hate people like him. I’m not a fighter but the one thing that has always been on my side is patience. Karma always comes back to get guys like Mike in the end.

“We should all play hide and seek,” Jessica and her strange ideas.

“Yeah that sounds like a great idea,” Tammy vouches for her.

“CLOSE YOUR EYES AND COUNT TO TWENTY,” Jessica yells as everyone sprints in different directions.

I close my eyes and start to count. One, two, three, four, and so forth. I get to fifteen and decide there’s nothing wrong with a little cheating. I open my eyes just as I hear the car doors slam behind me. I turn around and it starts up. Everyone is sitting there laughing. Jessica included. The car peels out and I’m left standing there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, but I knew the feelings of alienation and abandonment all too well. They were old friends I thought I could escape by coming here to California. It turns out they just caught a later flight than I did. Reunited at last.

I don’t even know why I came out to California. I keep telling myself that I wanted to go to art schools but there are art schools back home. California, the golden state. It was supposed to be where I would make all my dreams come true. I’d become a great artist. I’d fall in love. Lay the foundation for the rest of my life and start planning my future. I’ve been here three weeks and so far, every moment of it has sucked.

Damn, no signal on my, phone, looks like I’m walking back to the city. It’s a far walk from here to the main road and an even further walk back to the city. At least it’s a nice night out. From now on, I should follow my gut. I knew it was a bad idea. People don’t just become friends after a few classes, especially not girls like Jessica and guys like me.

All my life I’ve been wanting to go to California and chase my dreams. I know you don’t have to go to California to be an artist but I could never shake the idea from my brain. Instead, I just found more of the same I had back at home. No, it’s not all bad. At least I’m in school and I’ve got options. No, I’m in art school. When has art school ever helped anyone? I should have stayed home.

I was right to leave. I didn’t want to be like everyone else. Go to school, graduate and get a job at the foundry. That’s the plan for everyone in that town and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t spend the next fifty years of my life thinking about the good old days in high school while praying that a robot doesn’t come and take your job. That’s fine for dad, but not me. I can’t do that. Good old days in high school my ass. I never had any good days. Everyone just saw me as the weird kid.

I’m not even weird. Sure, I liked cartoons a little longer than everyone else did but why is that a problem? I’d rather be at home relaxing. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean there’s a lot of people like me out there. They just aren’t in small towns where everyone is expected to play football then go work in a foundry forever. There’s nothing wrong with that right?

I think the worst part might be the people who didn’t see me. People who looked right through me. I was just a ghost to so many people, and I still am. When your existence isn’t acknowledged, it hurts so much more. You start to wonder if you’re really there at all. I hated that place.

Was I really that desperate for a friend? I let some random people drive me out to the desert and ditch me. Hide and seek? What are we? Ten? I should have known better. I’ve never had any real friends. I remember for my eighth birthday party nobody showed up. No family, no friends. Just mom, dad and me. I’m so damn lonely and I thought I could just come out here and that would all change. What’s my problem?

Still no phone signal, I’ve been walking for what seems to be forever. At least it’s a nice night out. I should take some pictures for references. Maybe I’ll try painting some landscapes when I finally get back the city. The city looks so far from here. Just a dim orange glow, haunting me with bad decisions I’ve made. I guess I should make the best of it for now. It’s not as if I really have a choice.

It’s starting to get really dark, I pick up my pace a little. I don’t know what’s out here at night. I don’t want to find out either. It seems the animal calls are getting a little louder. I stumble across a hole in the ground and lose my balance. Laying on my back, the stars take on whole new light. Laying back and seeing so many all at one. A different star for everyone that came to California and thought that all their dreams would come true overnight. The guy who wanted to be a rapper, the girl who wanted to be an actress. Only they found out nothing comes over night and it’s no different from any other place on earth. I kind of want to go back home. I could just sell my art on the internet. It doesn’t have to be in a gallery.

A blue streak comes into focus, burning across the sky. It’s an amazing blue like no blue I had ever seen before. It’s almost as it was lighting the night sky on fire behind it. Splitting clouds, I didn’t even know where there. Is this a shooting star? Maybe a comet or meteorite, I don’t know. I don’t know what it is but I feel like everything is going to be okay watching it cut across the sky, hurtling towards Earth. I wonder if it’s an alien ship. Welcome to Earth little guy. You’re in for a wild trip. You’re going to have a rough landing and it won’t get easier from there. You’ll be fine little alien baby.

I climb to my feet and continue my trip towards the city. Still no phone signal, still a long walk. I should probably feel like crap. I still can't help but feel happy watching the blue streak across the sky. I feel like everything is going to be okay now. My steps take on a more confident feel under this shooting star. I'm going to be okay and everything is going to be fine. It falls towards Earth and seems to get closer at every moment. Almost like it's daring me to chase it. I hate running but I'm drawn to this thing, almost like it's my new good luck charm.

I bend down and tie my shoes tight. I really do not like running but I can't help it, I just have to do this. Nobody is around to see it anyway. I get a good stretch in, I remember that from gym class. Then I'm off, chasing after this shooting star or whatever. As silly as it seems I'm actually having fun and can't stop laughing. Why can't I stop laughing? It doesn't matter. My chest is sucking air like never before and for a moment I feel like I'm really alive. I imagine I have to look really stupid but there's nobody out here anyway.

I start to feel winded so I take a break as it gets closer, I'm almost back to where I started. I take a seat near where the fire was and keep watching. It's almost impossible to take my eyes off of it. It looks like pieces are starting to break off and spread out, each smaller than the last. One splits above my head and breaks into smaller pieces. Again, into smaller pieces, and yet again the process continues.

What floats to the ground is more like pollen than rocks, blown around the desert. I inhale deeply after finally catching my breath. That was a problem. My chest instantly starts to burn hotter than anything that I've ever felt before. I try to cough out the pain and it only makes my throat burn. The blue dust starts to touch my skin and I fall to ground burning. There's no flames but it burns. It burns so much. The ground shakes and what looks like an explosion takes place in the distance. I can't focus.

This is how I'm going to die, in the desert, thousands of miles away from home caused by some dust. My skin keeps burning and I try to stop drop and roll in the sand, it doesn't help. The sand cuts through the burning pain like glass and I feel myself start to cry but no tears would fall. I'm not going to make it. I've been burning so long it starts to feel like I'm melting into the sand. I find myself bargaining out loud with a God I never prayed to like I should have.

"Dear God l know I never pray like I'm supposed to but I don't want to die here. I don't want to die in the middle of nowhere burning to death. Please don't let me die. I promise I'll be a better person. I promise I'll make an effort to make friends. I won't be so selfish. I know I screw up but God please don't let me die here. I don't want to die. Please."

It gets harder to breathe, each breath hurting more the last as if a knife was cutting through my lungs. My hearing goes first and slowly my vision starts to blur. I'm not even trying to fight the burn anymore, I've given up on trying. My vision goes and the pain of the burning starts to subside. I guess this is what death is like. It's a lot different than I expected. I wonder if I'll get into Heaven, is there a Heaven? I'm about to find out. I should have stayed home. I should have just gotten a factory job and everything would have been okay. Instead I'll die in the desert. Coyotes will eat my body and my parents will never know I died. They'll have a funeral, nobody will come, because I don't have any friends. Damn, my life was pitiful.

Jin - Chapter 2

Shovel, check, pickaxe, check, journal check, camera, check. Alright, I think I've got everything for my trip out to the desert. Wait, gotta grab a few bottles of water, it's probably going to be hot out there. Alright, I think that's it. Nope, gotta grab some headphones. Music is a necessity. Okay, I'm all set. Wait, no that's it. I've got everything. Just have to get it all loaded into my truck. That's a lot of stuff to load for a few days but it's going to be worth it when I see the look on all their faces.

My truck, I love her. I was able to get a license early because it was just me on my own. The problem is nobody would sell a truck to me when I was younger. I spent months rebuilding it from junk I was able to get at the scrap yard. It's been with me ever since and I can't see letting it go. It got me through hard times and with all the time I've spent building upgrades it's better than anything you can get on the market, it's one of a kind and It's all mine. I load my last bag into the front seat and check the back to make sure everything is there. I've got my tent and food rations for a few days so I'll be all set.

Driving out of the city I can't help but think about how this will be the biggest discovery of my entire life. Everything has been leading up to this moment. This is when I finally make my mark on the world. I'll be recognized as a scientist worldwide. No more of this child genius bullshit. I’ll finally be seen as an equal to my peers. They’ll give me the respect I deserve. No, the respect that I earned. No more T.V. dinners. I’m finally going to make some money off my work.

I should be recording everything for the documentary they'll make about me.

“Good morning, my name is Jin Ryo. This is the beginning of my journey to prove that the Pajarito Messa holds a valuable secret. I have come to the conclusion that the sands of the deserts hold diamonds. It’s not unheard of for sands to hold diamonds. Many beaches in Africa are equipped with seawalls that are designed to harvest diamonds from the sands. The idea that a desert has sand comparable to a beach is laughable I understand that. Yet through my research I have come to the conclusion that Messa was once part of the ocean. When the ocean dried people were free to settle the surrounding areas. The sands went untouched. The elevation left it unsuitable to be settled and the winds caused the sands to be constantly stirred and shifted. I hypothesize that below the first several layers of sand are layers that hold traces of diamonds and possibly other gem stones as well. I will continue to update you with my findings on the regular. This is part one in a continuing series. Signing off."

I pull out of the parking lot and start heading out to the desert. Is this really the big moment? I've talked about doing this for so long but now I'm finally going to be doing it. Years of research, months of preparations and it all comes down to this moment. This will change my life forever. The sun starts to set as I arrive at the desert. It's really amazing. Looking in the rearview mirror I watch as dust flies up behind me and almost glistens in the sunset. The GPS alerts me that I've come to the spot I planned for my campsite. I plan to spend a few days out here. It's worth it to make everyone eat their words.

It's a cool night and a good night for camping. Every night is a good night for camping if you've got my automatic camping kit. The fire starts itself, the tent prepares itself and I can even charge the phone using my generator. It runs on a solar battery. It gets charged up in the sun and can run for forty-three hours without recharge. I'm still working on that last three. Even if I can never sell the rights to my inventions, they make my life easier. Before I know it the camp site is ready.

S’mores and hotdogs are the only dinner camping. I smother the fire and climb into my tent. It's so crazy that in the old days people would leave a fire going as they slept. Instead, I sleep in a climate controlled tent. That's if I sleep. Right now I can't seem to sleep. My mind keeps racing with thoughts of what I might find. Those don't bother me, I dream of them every night.

The doubt is what keeps me up at night. I've spoken for so long about what I'll find. I've told so many people about this. The scientific community already laughs at me. They see me as a boy genius who aged up and never made any significant contributions to the world. They laugh at my inventions. This is my last chance to prove them wrong. If not, this is the end for me. I end up as another washed out child prodigy. I don't think I'll pick up the drug addiction but I'll probably give up on the science fields. Settle down with a middle class job, maybe get married to a smoking hot babe.

I wake up before the sun rises fully. The desert can heat up in the day so I feel like it’ll be best if I get as much work done before that as I can. Take a break when the sun reaches solar noon. I start to rope off the area I’m working in. I doubt anyone will venture out this far but you never know. Also a good way to make sure I focus on one are instead of digging up the entire desert. I stab the shovel into the ground, placing my foot on it to dig in and break up the hard surface. This is where I sink or swim. It’s all or nothing with this one. I go back for more dirt tossing it in the wheelbarrow as I go. The further I go the easier it gets. I just have to get through the rough topsoil and then the real fun can begin.

Shovel full after shovel full until I’ve finally peeled back the crunchy exterior of the desert. Now it’s time to find the secrets it holds. Robots are a modern marvel. I love them, they make our work so much easier. They can’t do everything but they can do a lot of amazing things. Time to let robots do their job but not before another explanation.

“Jin here, I’ve removed the top layer of soil so that we can reach the soft soil that can be searched for jewels and any other secrets that the desert holds. To do that we’re going to use my underground rover. It’s similar to the NASA rovers. The difference is this one is fitted with a small drill to dig through the soil. It maneuvers using sonar and features a wide variety of sensors. It periodically samples the soil to test for any elements not normally found in dirt. Once the rover has found jewels it will surface and signal me using a GPS signal. Hopefully in the next few hours we’ll have everything we need to prove my hypothesis to be correct. I’ll update you at that time.

I set the rovers free and watch them burrow underground. I shouldn’t place all my faith in them, but I do. I’m confident that the work I have done thus far will have been enough. Maybe I should have started with something smaller but if you don’t go big nobody respects you. Especially if they see you as another failed child genius. I’m not Einstein or Tesla but I’m not a slouch either. I’m actually pretty damn good at what I do but nobody takes me seriously. This is going to be the thing that writes my name in the halls of history. It has to work. If it doesn't then I'm not sure where to go from there.

The day turns to night and I've been out here for hours. Finally I get a ping from one of the rovers. They've found something of value. I hop into the truck and take off to its GPS location. It's dark even with the headlights. I hit every boulder and drive over ever ditch in the desert. In just a matter of time I'll be the talk of the scientific community. No longer a boy genius pariah. I hit something else and the truck rattles forward to a stop. I must have hit the fuel line or something. I have to keep going. I hop out and grab my backpack. I'm on foot from here.

The desert has cooled again which makes the trek easier. A blueish comet looms overhead and illuminates the sky but I've got no time for stargazing. I continue following the GPS signal of the rover hoping to meet it as it begins to surface. This is it. This is the moment. The real thing. I've finally done it. I'm feeling invincible. I stumble across the desert hoping to find the metaphorical gold mine awaiting me. I finally make eye contact with the Rover's flare and I kick it into high gear. I slide as if I'm stealing a base and grab for the rover. My fingers fumble across the surface of it as I look for the slot that holds the SD card full of readings. I find it and it treat it gentler than I've treated anything before. I pull my laptop from my backpack and slide the card in gently. The readings take what seem like forever to load up. Anticipation fills every cell of my body as I scroll through looking for anything significant.

More and more data, for mile and mile after desert. The more I interpret the more my heart starts to sink into my stomach. It's looking more and more unlikely. My hands start shake, I don't know if it's with shock or rage. As I reach the bottom of the data I see what the rover had found. A fucking ring. It found a fucking ring that someone lost in the desert probably years ago on some stupid wedding photoshoot. I can't believe it. I stand up and close my laptop gently before flinging it across the desert like a Frisbee with all my might. I set my eyes on the rover next. I grab the nearest stone and I start to pound at it, denting the metal casing snapping off pieces until there's nothing left of it but a stool. I let out a primal scream and that's it. I'm done with the situation. I'm done with all of this.

The blue comet blazes through the sky and watching it seems to calm me temporarily. For just a moment my mind drifts to nothingness and I don't stress over anything. It's almost as if I couldn't take my eyes off the comet. I gaze into it endlessly wondering what secrets it holds. There has to be some reason for it to appear blue in the night sky. A gas reaction with our atmosphere, cobalt in the material that makes it. I'll probably never know. I've been staring too long. My vision starts to fade at the edges turning white.

I turn my head away and rub my eyes. It doesn't help. There's a slight stinging like hand sanitizer in a cut. My vision starts to fade more and I'm at a loss. I do my best to start making it towards my backpack. It hold my cell phone but I flung it somewhere during my fit of rage. I finally pinpoint its lactation and start to walk towards it. I stumble, trying to keep my balance. After falling twice, I resort to crawling. Finally reaching my back I stumble through to it until I find the first aid kit. I desperately grasp for the eye wash solution and pour the whole bottle into my eyes. It does nothing to stop it. This isn't how you're supposed to go blind. It's supposed to be a steady shift to darkness not a sudden blindness.

Today was supposed to be the day when I carved my name in the walls of history. I wasn't supposed to go blind for no reason. This is bullshit like everything else in life and I refuse to go out like this. It has to be some kind of film covering my eyes to cause this blindness. I reach for the scalpel. I'll just have to perform surgery on myself. This wasn't how I planned my first surgery to go but it'll have to work. I do my best to hold the scalpel but my hands are shaking too much. I can barely see and I'll certainly end up mutilating myself. Surgery isn't the best option but there has to be something that I'm not thinking of. Poisonous bites, no, couldn't be it. I would have felt a bite. Couldn't be a sting, there's only one breed of scorpion in the desert and it has a non-venomous bite. Could be a bug, but no bugs have bites this dangerous except spiders. Spiders usually have flesh destroying bites, if a spider bit my eye, I would know it.

Peripheral vision has already failed me and my depth perception is almost gone. For the first time in my life I'm finally out of answers. I never saw myself as someone who gave up easily. Yet, here I am in the craziest moment of my life, giving up and giving in. I use the last of my vison to activate the map on my phone. Nothing I can do but crawl to the main road and hope someone finds me. This is it for me. I'm not even mad right now. I don't have the emotions to express this.

My vision is completely gone now. The image of that blue comet is burned into my retina. It had to be the comet that did this. It's the only thing that I can think of. I got done in by a fucking comet. The air starts to get heavy and there's a rumbling almost like an earthquake off in the distance. I assume the architect of my demise has finally reached the earth. I'd love to crack the mystery of this comet but for right now, I need to solve the issue of blindness. Maybe getting further away from it will start to bring back my sight. If that really was the comet crashing into the Earth then it could have been the cause of my blindness.

It seems like I've been crawling forever before I reach what feels like a vehicle. If I'm lucky it'll be my truck. If I can get figure out what's wrong with it, I may be able to perform a quick fix so that I can get out of here. I can just use the voice commands to get me to a hospital. Maybe my luck is turning around. I slide underneath the truck and start to feel around beneath it. There shouldn't be any problems under the hood unless something were to penetrate the undercarriage of the truck. I know every inch of this truck. If something is wrong with it, I can find it. My fears are realized when I reach the fuel line. There's a gaping hole. Too large to fix with the supplies I have here. At least in my current state of blindness.

I roll from beneath the truck and consider this the end. I can no longer see and I fear I'm starting to lose consciousness. This is the end for me. There is nothing left of Jin Ryo. Tomorrow the sun will rise, and I will not be here.

Vivian - Chapter 3

"This is Vivian Houston coming to you from the southernmost edge of California. Today we are taking a look at one of the small nameless border towns. A town of less than one hundred individuals that has been decimated by hard stances on immigration as well as cartel funded wars over the distribution and profits. This small community was once filled with more energy. It used to be a rest haven for those who would travel back and forth between Mexico and the United States for work. With the ever-growing restrictions on immigration that segment of people no longer exists. There is no longer a rotating door of people. They either come, and never leave, or they never come at all.

Because of that the makeup of this small town has changed. No longer is it made up of people chasing after a dream it is now filled with drug addicts fought over like cattle by rival dealers. Immigration crippled this small town and drugs are finishing what is left. When people aren’t under the influence bullets cut through the air as turf wars take place in a space no bigger than two football fields. There’s no running water here, and electricity is provided by gas generators but you can find a gun or high every few feet. This is not a third world country, this is America.”

“Cut,” Chuck, my director and camera guy always knows when to cut me off before I start to ramble.

“How was that Chuck?”

“It was great, I think we can cut it for today and hit the ground running with some interviews tomorrow and really get to know some of the people in the area."

"You really think we'll be able to get them to speak to us?"

"It's worth a shot, if not we just got some great filler footage."

"Filler footage of what? You're delusional."

"You never know when you might need it."

"Whatever, lets head back to camp for the night. Maybe if we get up early we can get footage of some people crossing over into the United States on film"

"Sorry Viv, I'm going to head back into the city to grab some beers with an old friend while we're close by. You can come with us if you'd like."

"Don't worry about it, go have a good time. Just make sure to be back in time for filming tomorrow."

"Will do boss"

The ride back to our little circle of RVs is quiet. Not because I'm mad that Chuck has friends. We're just both really tired of being out in this desert. It's not like we enjoy it, but we're coving an issue that nobody else will. The dinner was even quieter. There's no cell phone reception out here in the middle of nowhere. I'm not sure I could make it if I had to live in a place like this. These people should be held up for the world to be as saints. No hot showers, no bath bombs, no television. I missed Queen Sugar for this. If this doesn't get picked up by a major studio I'm going to be furious. I'd go insane out here. I log on to my computer, and turn on some Whitney Houston. Streaming is all the rage but you can't stream when you're out in the middle of nowhere. A little mp3 is all I need. That and a glass of whiskey for a night cap and I'm all set. Yes Whitney, I will always love you.

I don’t remember drifting off to sleep but I remember waking up. The air got heavy and the ground rumbled like it was trying to swallow everything above it whole. An eerie blue glow filled my camper. Looking out I wasn't able to see where it was coming from. I slipped on some running shoes and eased outside unsure of what I might find. The night sky glowed a magnificent blue I'd never seen before. Off in the distance towards one of the little shanty towns darting the area I could see what seemed to be a large flame. The color was of course blue, something wasn't right about this night. It seemed more like a dream than a reality. Too many similarities for no discernable reasons.

Diving deeper into the dream I start one of the dune buggies we had been using to navigate the desert I drive toward the light at full speed. As I get close the light starts to flicker in and out, almost like a strobe light. I hit record on the camera so if I somehow end up dead out here, at least the world will know how I died. I reach the first of several small border towns and see people standing outside watching. Some stand on the rooftops. Some have fallen to their knees and begun to pray as if some magnificent God has fallen from the sky. I press the gas harder moving ever close to the light. It grows brighter by the second.

I'm forced to slam on the breaks just beyond the third little town I pass. Black jeeps litter the area blocking anyone from passing through. I stop and look for a way around them but they seem to have the entire area blocked off. I make a quick U-turn hoping to backtrack. Slowly a faceless man in a black suit strolls in front of my buggy. His faceless head looked into my soul and caused me to stop. I wanted to simply drive through this man. I just couldn't, his melting face broke me. I don't know if it was a deformity, or some kind of mask but it had done the job of scaring me. I blew the horn but he refused to move.

Two men who looked as if they could be clones of the original approached my vehicle and ushered me to step out. I refused to move, but one of the men grabbed me and pulled me from the vehicle. Standing so close I was able to stare into where his eyes should have been. Getting a closer look, I could see that these men were not faceless, but instead wore masks to conceal their identities. The mask they were seemed to be made from some sort of thick material but they had no problem seeing me or anything else. I found myself speechless before these men, but could only do my best to appear as if I was fearless. I'm sure it didn't work but I had to try.

"Walk," one of the men said through what must have been some kind of voice changer.

Every journalistic instinct inside of me wanted to start asking questions but my common sense tells me to just walk where I'm pointed to. So I did, I walked where they told me to against every sign that my intuition was telling me to run. Walking through the small community seemed even smaller as we walked through. The blue light illuminated the dusty path littered with trash. I didn’t see any other people which was strange. Even if these towns weren’t heavily populated there were always some children playing soccer. Now, there was nothing but silence. More of the black jeeps from earlier just out of my view. Clearly there’s more of these men here. I don’t know what I got myself into but I want out.

We come to a small stone building and more people in suits stand guard near the door, this time with guns out. This building isn’t like any of the other buildings around here. Usually they’re makeshift shacks built with scrap wood and whatever else the residents can find. Not this building, it’s almost as if it was flown in and dropped here. Almost as if it had been carved from a single piece of stone. I’m not sure if they’re keeping people in or out. My questions are answered when my guides usher me towards the large double doors. A cold draft hits me as the door is opened. At least my death will be air-conditioned. I’m given a small shove and the door closes behind me.

Inside more questions get answered. Inside people are huddled together. They must have rounded up everyone in the town for some reason. I walk through the crowd hoping to catch a glimpse of anyone that seems to know what is going on. They’re all as lost as I am. Some look confused, some look agitated and plenty are in tears. They comfort their children and there’s nothing they can do.

I pick a spot on the wall and slide down. I try to digest what has happened but none of it makes sense. Earthquakes and blue lights. Masked people in suits with guns. Black jeeps and makeshift prisons. I’ve got nothing. I can’t help but laugh at the situation. Back when I had my television show we’d bring in the conspiracy theorist nut jobs every now and then. I’d spend an hour pointing out how ridiculous they sounded talking about government black sites, the men in black and so forth. I guess they got the last laugh in the end because here I am. Right in the middle of some middle school conspiracy theory. I wonder if it’ll be aliens or subterranean lizard people that do us in. Looking down at my cell phone I’ve spent an hour here. That’s way too much time for me to be sitting here. Yet, I’ve got nothing. I don’t know who has us. I don’t know why. The only thing I can think of is it has something to do with the strange lights. Too bad I don’t know what the strange light is.

My mind now turns to escape. There don’t seem to be any exits out of this building other than the doors that I came in. Maybe there’s some kind of ventilation system I can get out through. Unfortunately it looks like the only air vents are at the top of the room, way too high for me to climb up to. There really doesn’t seem like any way out of this building. Can’t believe this is the end for me. Another hour has passed. It’s just about three in the morning now and I’ve got nothing. I can’t ever let myself get into a situation like this again.

The door opens and artificial light flows in. Everyone covers their eyes in pain as another person is led in. I had assumed they had everyone by now but I guess they missed a few or a few people were hiding. I guess the good news is they haven’t turned this into a shooting range just yet. That’s when I notice a group of men standing near the doorway. There’s about of dozen of them huddled together, clearly planning something. I inch a little closer attempting to hear what they’re saying. My Spanish isn’t very good but I get the basics of their conversation. They’re planning to rush the door next time it opens. They’ll be shot dead. They don’t have any weapons and the people out there all have guns. They’ll never make it. One of them tells the others the same thing. They don’t care. They feel like it’s better for a few to make it out even if the rest die. He disagrees and walks away from the huddle. The others begin to stretch.

I don’t know when the door will open again, but now I’m anxious. If I was a better person, I’d tell them not to do it. Instead I plan to run out in all the chaos. I start to stretch as well. When that door opens I’m going full speed. If I stay low the chances of me getting shot are slim. Hopefully I can make it to one of those jeeps and get back to the city. I doubt they’d pursue me there. This might be the dumbest thing I’ve done since sneaking in Studio 54 with a fake ID. I laugh at myself again, I really need to break that habit. My concentration is split now. The men preparing to rush the door, and back to the door. It seems like hours have passed since they brought the last person in. I may not get a chance to escape after all.

I can hear the door squeal as it slowly opens. I lick my lips in anticipation and swallow fear. My heart drops into my stomach and I take position like a sprinter. The men brace themselves and everything goes into slow motion. The door opens and another person walks in. As the door closes the men make their move. At first it seems like they took our masked captors by surprise. Hitting them with a flurry of punches and kicks taking out maybe two of them before the first bullet fires. While they focus on the men in the center, I sprint at them from the right side, full speed, not blinking.

My ears begin to pound and ring as I rush through, fear surely stains my face. My feet hit the sand outside and I should be home free at this point. I hear the screams as they continue to fire on the men. I should try to help them but I can’t. I need to save myself. I make it to the first jeep I see, turn the key and slam my foot on the gas. I can’t bear looking in the mirror, afraid I might see one of the dead men behind me. I just drive as fast as I can. I make it a few minutes before I hear a car horn behind me. They saw me and they’re giving chase now. I just have to make it back to the city. They won’t pursue me there, I hope.

Soon the horns stop and gun shots start to ring out, I try to swerve hoping it’ll throw off their aim but it shows no results. It’s like they have an infinite supply of bullets show no sign of slowing down. I think I’ve got the hang of this until I feel a burning sensation rip through my right arm. I lose control of the jeep and slam into a boulder. The collision crosses my eyes and I see double for just a moment. I try to regain control, but my right arm is dead and my left isn’t strong enough to control the jeep in this terrain. I hit a chasm and the jeep starts to tilt. I can’t save it. It slams down on the side and slides forward. I try to crawl out but my body gives up on me.

Through teary vision I stare up at the sky accepting this as the end. My arm keeps bleeding and I’m getting a little cold. I try to put pressure on it so I don’t bleed out but my left arm isn’t strong enough. This isn’t like the movies, death doesn’t come for you instantly. It looks down on you and taunts you. I’ve rescinded any hopes I had of getting away. Now I just hope they get here and make it quick. Finally my pursuers reach me. They pretend to take pity on me. I’m losing consciousness as they snatch me up off the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Orlando - Chapter 4

I'm down almost thirty thousand but all I need is one big win and I can be done forever. This isn't the life for me anyway. I kiss my lucky rabbit's foot and head in the bar. The bouncer shakes his head disapprovingly but he knows me. He sees me almost every day of the week. I head over to the barkeep. She knows me too. I'm a high roller.

"Hey Jess, I need into the back room," she rolls her eyes.

"Orlando, I can't do that to you in good conciseness," straight faced as she is pretty.

"Why not? I'm back there all the time."

"You lose all the time," fair point.

"Today's different, I'm feeling lucky. My back's been against the wall so long I'm bound to win this time around."

"You got no money. You never have any money. In fact, you owe us almost fifty thousand dollars," was it really that high"

"I'll use my car as collateral, it's a real nice car. Classic 68' Pontiac GTO," worth some good money.

"You lost the car last week. They only let you keep it because it was a piece of crap."

"What about my house?"

"What house? You live in a run-down apartment," she's really got a lot of good points today.

"What if I had cash?"

"Should have started with that Orlando. Cash is king."

"I got three thousand, which should let me get a few hands in."

"You really don't want to use the money for something better like paying your rent or just paying what you owe? Gonna look bad if you've got money to gamble but not money to go towards your debts."

"Whatever, just buzz me back."

"Fine, do what you want. It's not my money," I know she's looking out.

"Just a shame a guy like you has fallen so far," she mumbles as the hidden door slides open and lets me into the seedy gambling den tucked in back.

I pretend I didn't hear the last thing she said. That way I could pretend it didn't hurt my feelings. I know I've got a problem but I'm pretty helpless to do anything about it. I've just got an addictive personality and gambling doesn't really hurt anyone but me. It's better this way. I could be out drinking and driving. I could have a sex addiction and ruin a bunch of lives like Tiger Woods. This way nothing gets hurt but my pride and my bank account.

The smell of cheap cigars mixed with booze floats around the room. This is my real home. The place where I feel like I can be the real me. I head over to the small counter. The beady eyed clerk doesn't make small talk when I try to great him. I hand him my money and he exchange the cash for chips. Hopefully, at the end of the night I can trade in more chips for more cash. The way my luck has been going lately, I doubt it but it could all change in just a matter of seconds. That's the way these things go. You've got ups and downs. I just happen to be down right now but soon I'll be up.

I find an empty seat at one of the poker tables. I add my chips to the pot and the dealer deals me in. There's no talk at these games. I've been run out of most of the legitimate establishments in the city and this is what's left. There's no friendly personalities. There's no emerging professionals. Just a bunch of people with nowhere else to gamble. We've all been booted from friendly games with friends. Half of us aren't allowed inside casinos anymore and all of us are just looking for a win. Some people chase the thrill in life but others chase the feeling of winning. The same way you feel when you win five dollars on a two dollar scratch off is the way I feel every time I win a hand. But I haven't won many hands lately.

Fifteen minutes in and it looks like I'm going to be losing all my money again tonight. Everyone at the table keeps losing to the house tonight. I've been part of enough setups that I can spot a rigged game from a mile away. I decide to call it quits for the night. This isn't the only gambling joint around. I head back to trade chips for cash. I hand over the chips and I don't get any cash back.

"Hey, aren't you supposed to give me money for those chips."

"You don't get any cash back," who does this brute think he is?

"Why don't I get any cash back?"

"Boss says so"

"I can see that you're a man of few words so tell your boss I want to see him."

"Don't worry about it," a new voice enters my ear as I'm grabbed by the arm.

"Treat a lady with respect," hopefully a joke will ease the tension.

"You isn't no lady and even if you were you'd be an ugly one," clearly my new friend isn't the type for jokes or political correctness, or grammar.

I walk alongside helplessly because there's no way I can fight off this big goon. I said I wanted to see the boss as a threat. I didn't think they'd actually take me to the boss. In fact, the boss wanted to see me so I know I'm in trouble. He drags me back into the main bar, this time we're going behind the counter and to a small office tucked away beside the kitchen. It looks like it belongs in some kind of TV show about Italian mobsters. It's just that stereotypical. I'm half expecting some pudgy Tony Soprano look alike to walk in and tell me that I'm costing him a lot of money.

As if right on cue a short round bald man walks in with a greying comb over. He's wearing a suit that looks as if it was never his size to begin with. Rings cover his fingers and they all look as if they're about to cut off his circulation. He's flanked by another one of his goons. This one wearing a shirt that has to be at least three sizes too small so he looks more muscular. He reminds me of a nightclub bouncer who is mostly there just to look tough. He doesn't scare me. Okay, he scares me a little but I'm mad enough to admit that. This isn't TV they aren't going to kill me because that'd be way too hard to get away with.

"Hello Mr. Campos my name is Adrian. You don't need to know my last name. It's inconsequential. I've brought you here because you're costing me a lot of money. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

"First, you can just call me Orlando, Mr. Campos was my father. Second, am I in some kind of TV show? This seems like a setup."

"Yes, it's a setup. We've been waiting for you to come back here so we could collect on what you owe us," damn, I guess Jess was trying to warn me in her own cold-blooded way.

"Exactly how much do I owe you exactly," hopefully it's less than the number Jess gave me earlier. What was it again? Something like three thousand? That sounds about right. I brought that with me I'll be fine.

"You owe us forty-seven thousand, three hundred and eighty dollars but I've taken the liberty of rounding up to fifty thousand as a small collection fee."

"Damn, that is a lot of money," way more than I expected.

"Indeed, it is a lot of money Mr. Campos. How do you plan to repay us?"

"Honestly, I've got no clue. Can we work out some kind of payment plan or something?"

"I don't do payment plans. I need my money."

"Can you take something else? I've got a car."

"We don't want your pezzo di merda."

"My what?"

"Piece of shit, the car is a piece of shit. You've got nothing left to give us. We're criminals not repo-men."

"Seriously is this a TV show? I bet you're not even Italian," hopefully my charming personality will get me out of this one. It's gotten me out of tougher spots.

"Look, you two. I need you to take him on a one-way trip to paradise with a survivor's kit. Capisce?"

"Did you mean 'capiche' that's what all the mobsters in the movies use."

"Forget the money, make sure nobody ever sees him again. Put him on Gilligan's Island."

"You've got a lot of those references, don't you?"

The goons put on their best tough faces and pull me from the seat. I try to make jokes and they don't even crack a smile. See, this is the good thing about gambling habits. I didn't hurt anyone but myself and the pockets on the fake mobster. They take me to the parking lot and pull me towards a black sedan. They pop the trunk and I know whatever happens next isn't going to be pleasant. One pulls a piece of cloth and jams it in my mouth as a gag. The other pushes me in the trunk and starts to beat me like I've never been beaten before. I guess the muscles weren't for show. I feel my legs and arms being tied as I start to fade.

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