The Last Fare by Sam Beach

Most people remember where they were when important events happened. Both Kennedy boys shot, King assassinated, Armstrong setting foot on the moon, the Berlin Wall coming down, the Twin Towers. And then there was the ‘Big Announcement.’

I was on St. Clair Avenue, picking up another drunk fare when the President broke into TV and radio. I remember his voice shaking, just a little. It was like your doctor telling you that the disease had spread, and you didn’t have much time. It seemed to me that he was apologizing for the bad news as if he should have been able to stop it. For reasons the scientific community couldn’t explain, the dwarf planet Ceres had broken from its orbit in the asteroid belt and was headed to our little blue oasis in the solar system. I thought the dinosaurs were lucky. They had no idea how little time they had left. We had six months. A hundred and eighty days to strut and fret upon our stage, then to be heard no more.

That was 179 days ago. I’m surprised that we held it together as well as we did. Given our violent tendencies, I thought for sure that once Ceres arrived, it would find nothing but a burned-out mess, void of life save a few stragglers who managed to outwit the seething masses. Maybe – seeing she couldn’t cause the mass destruction she intended – she would pout and go home like a bully denied his chance to torment the new kid in class. Perhaps those left would start over; make the right choices and fulfill the promise mankind once held.

But no. Facing obliteration, the world pulled together as one, set aside the petty squabbles which fueled war, hatred, and mistrust. It was as if our eyes had been opened to our own folly, too late in the game to win it.

There would be no expert oil well driller and his noble crew to save the day. Ceres was no ordinary hunk of space rock. At 592 miles in diameter, it had been classified a dwarf planet in 2006. Science had long accepted that the asteroid which put the Jurassic world to sleep, was a mere six miles wide. Ceres – even if it lost two-thirds of its mass on the way in – would still be 200 miles around. Even the microbes would call it a day.

I don’t want you to think we didn’t try, that we just sat there with a happy hour grin plastered on our faces. The solution, feeble as it was, managed to do one good thing. It rid the world of its Nuclear Stockpiles. They knew we couldn’t blow it up, but if we could detonate – at the same time, in the same general area – every single nuke the world powers had, maybe we could shift its path. Even a few degrees, at just the right point, would send it past us like a curve ball headed over the plate, then dropping out of the strike zone for ball four, walking in the winning run. I remember watching the night sky when they detonated all those terrible warheads. Have you ever heard a large chunk of rock laugh? I think she’s ticklish.

Where are my manners? You must think this is like having a drunk saddle up next to you at the bar and start pouring out his woes. The name on my license is Austin Curtis, but most of the cabbies call me A.C. – except for Harry, the dispatcher. Harry isn’t good with names, so everybody is “Jerk Face” followed by a number. I’m Jerk Face Seven. He says that he’s going to Hell anyway, so he doesn’t have to be nice.

One of those statements is wrong. You can decide for yourself which one.

I’ve been working for Southland Taxi for about seven months. Got hired just before the big ‘announcement.’ I could go on about myself – there’s certainly more to tell – but what’s the use? My shift’s about to start and I’ve never been late.

Southland Taxi, December 10, 2018

“What the hell are you doin’ here, Jerk Face Seven?” Harry said from behind the cage.

“Almost time for my shift,” I answered, heading to the old gray time clock. It was 10:50 P.M., so I had another five before I could punch in. Company rules.

“Yer shift? Da fook makes ya think yer gettin’ any fares tonight?” He motioned around the garage full of dirty yellow cabs. “In case ya been under a rock, dis is the curtain call.”

Leaning against the cage, I could smell the Gin on his breath. “So, what are you doing here then?”

Bloodshot hazel eyes narrowed at me. “Dat’s my business, Jerk Face… Jerk Face…” His lips thinned.

“Seven,” I reminded him. “Jerk Face Seven.”

“I know who da fook ya are!”

The large clock on the wall chimed 10:55. “Time to punch in,” I said, happy to end this conversation. The time clock was finicky, more so tonight, as if it was telling me to go home. After a minute, I heard the ‘clack’ as it gave up and stamped my time on the manila card. Slipping it back into my slot, I walked over to the cage. “Keys, Harry.” His head was down and for a moment, I thought maybe he’d passed out until it slowly rose. He was crying.

“I’m here cuz I ain’t got nowhere else ta go,” he said, easing the keys through the slot.

It was well known around the garage that Harry Kilgore had no family, at least none he ever spoke of. There were no pictures on the wall inside the small cage, no drawings from grade schoolers, or birthday cards. At that moment, I felt a deep sadness for the man. This old, decrepit garage was all he had. His entire life was in that eight by twelve wood framed enclosure. And what a wasted life it was. As I took the keys, I wondered just how many ‘Harrys’ would be doing the same thing tonight. Getting drunk alone, crying, sitting in their own self-made cages. I must have had a pitying look on my face.

He straightened a bit, wiped his face with his hand and motioned to the garage door. “Git outta here. Last thing I need is some jerk face feelin’ sorry fer me.”

I nodded, made my way over to cab thirty-five, unlocked the door and started to get in when I felt a presence behind me. When I turned, Harry stood there with his hand out.

“It’s been good knowin’ ya, Austin.”

We shook hands. “Likewise, Harry.”

I watched him shuffle back to his cage, step up into it and uncap a bottle of Jack Daniels. Climbing into the cab, I cranked it over, backed out and waited for Harry to open the garage door.

As it rose, I heard his voice over the PA. “Thirty-Five out. Ten Fifty-nine P.M.”

Once my cab cleared the exit, the door slowly went down and I heard somebody set off a loud firecracker. At least that’s what I’m going to believe it was.

Emmitt and Mister Brownie

My first fare was an elderly man cradling a small tortoiseshell kitten. I saw him shuffling down the sidewalk and honked once to let him know I was available. His weathered face broke into a smile as he turned and saw me pull up alongside.

“Can I take you somewhere, sir?” I asked, after lowering the window.

“Home,” he said, bending over as far as he could to see me. “Mister Brownie and I just want to get home.”

Nodding, I put the cab in park, got out and walked over to the passenger’s side. Opening the front door, I noticed him hesitate and step back a bit.

“Don’t fares usually ride in back?” he asked, giving Mister Brownie a reassuring head rub.

“Not tonight, sir.” I held the door open for him. “Not tonight.”

“Please call me Emmitt,” he said, sliding into the seat.

“Emmitt it is then,” I said, closing the door. Walking back to the driver’s side, I glanced up and saw the bright speck in the sky. The clock on the old Federal building struck midnight, its gong echoing through deserted streets. Not much time. The closer it got, the faster it would travel, as Earth’s gravity tugged at the giant mass. “My name is Austin,” I said, easing my six-foot frame into the driver’s seat. “Where’s home?”

“I have a small apartment over in Glendale. Serenity Senior Center. Are you familiar with it?”

“I am,” I said, reaching over to shut the meter off. Noticing his puzzled look, I smiled. “Rides are free tonight too.” Pulling out onto the street, I reached over and gave Mister Brownie a chin scratch. “The Senior center is quite a trip. How did you end up in the city?”

“I drove,” he said, stroking the cat’s soft fur. “I wanted to see the city, one last time.” His head turned to the window as we rolled past deserted buildings. I could hear the ache in his voice. “I grew up here. Born eighty-two years ago, right over there in that run-down Hospital. Once upon a time, I could tell you where every nook and cranny in this city was. Now, it’s all just…” his voice trailed off. Mister Brownie stretched out in his lap, gave a yawn and curled back up. “Look at me, getting all teary-eyed over nothing. Few more hours, and there won’t be so much as a cinder block left of anything. No one will ever know we were here. The good we did, the horrors we caused. It will all be erased.”

I didn’t comment. What was there to say? We drove on in silence for a few miles, then Mister Brownie stirred, opened his green eyes and let out a pitiful meow.

“He’s hungry,” Emmitt said, trying to soothe the cat with the tip of his forefinger, “and I don’t have anything at home to give him. Maybe I should have just left him in the alley.”

“He’s a stray?” The look on my face must have been one of astonishment, and the old man laughed.

“Yes, a stray. My car ran out of gas over on Saint Clair. I figured I’d be able to find some, but all the pumps were empty, and I’m too damn old to go siphoning. I headed home. Knew I wouldn’t make it, but at least I’d be moving when it hit. I heard him rummaging around some trash cans, so I picked him up, named him, and started walking. Only had him for about a half hour when you showed up.” Mister Brownie suckled Emmitt’s finger furiously, batting at it when nothing came out. “It’s too bad this bastard rock couldn’t hold off a few more weeks. Be nice to share Christmas with this little fellow. Bet he’d be a hoot climbing up into the tree, chasing wrapped balls, investigating every corner in my place. I have one of those electric fireplace heater things, the kind that really looks like a fire. It’d sure be nice to sit in front of it, listening to carols while the snow fell, and petting my buddy.” A small tear ran down his cheek, landing on the kitten’s head. “I couldn’t let him die without ever knowing love. I just…”

I turned my head, so Emmitt wouldn’t see the effect that story had on me. “Don’t you have any family here?” I asked to the window.

“Not here, no.” Mister Brownie had fallen back asleep with Emmitt’s finger secured in his mouth. “Wife’s been dead some twenty-three years. She’s buried over in Calvary Cemetery. I was going to stop on my way back, say hello.” He shrugged.

“Calvary’s on the way,” I said. “I can stop if you’d like.”

“Nah, no sense in it. I know that whatever hereafter there is, she’s waiting on me there and I’ll be seeing her soon enough.” A small smile lit his face, then disappeared. “Far as kids go, I got five. Three boys, two girls, but they’re scattered all over the world. I wasn’t much of a dad. Too busy trying to make my mark in the world to pay much attention. Got six grandkids. Haven’t seen any of them. There’s always a price to pay, isn’t there?” He faced forward. “How about you? You got any kids?”

I nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“Do you talk to them?”

“I try. They don’t listen.” I turned the corner onto Blair street and pulled up in front of the apartment building. Only one light shone, from a third-floor window. I figured that was probably his, the place with the fake fireplace. “Looks like you and Mister Brownie are home.” I got out, walked to the other side and opened the door. “Can I walk you to your apartment?”

“No, no,” he said, waving me off. “I’m sure you got more important things to do tonight.”

As he swung his legs out, I helped him up, steadying him. Mister Brownie stirred and yawned, finally releasing his grip on Emmitt’s finger. “Just a minute,” I said, leaning down to open the glove box. I always kept a few cans of Tuna in there, just in case I got hungry mid-shift. I handed him two and smiled. “Tell Mister Brownie that this is from Austin Curtis, cab number thirty-five.” I reached down to pet him and almost broke down when he looked at me, those big green eyes filled with questions that would never be answered.

“He likes you,” Emmitt said. “I like you too. Thanks for the ride, and the company.” He gave me a one-armed hug, turned and shuffled off, cooing to the small bundle of fur in his arm.

I watched him vanish into the doorway, waited until I saw his shadow cross the apartment window, then smiled. “I like you too, Emmitt Richards. Peace be with you.” Glancing at my watch, I sighed. Not long now. Might have time to catch a few more fares, before heading to my spot on Davis Hill to watch the finale. Getting back into old thirty-five, I backed out of the drive, turned and headed toward the city.

The Sound of Silence and a Six-Pack to Go

Most of the major cities worked hard at keeping their utilities running right up until the end. Cleveland was no exception. Lights, water, gas. All the comforts we had grown used to—and taken for granted—still did their jobs. You could even use an ATM, though the banks had dried up over a month ago. I stopped in at one of the local gas and snack stations, crossing my fingers that I might find a forgotten six-pack in one of the coolers. Clevelanders love their beer. The entire store was cleaned out, the only sound coming from a pair of small ceiling speakers.

‘Fools, said I, you do not know.

Silence like a cancer grows.

Hear my words that I might teach you.

Take my arms that I might reach you.

But my words, like silent raindrops fell.

And echoed, in the wells, of silence.’

How true those words were. Too late now. I was about to leave when a thought struck. Maybe back in the storeroom, there might be one straggler. If so, it would still be nice and cold, so back I went, through the large white door. Nothing but concrete and steel greeted me. Wait. Over in the far-left corner, laying on its side. . . was it? Could it be? YES! A full six-pack of ice cold Bud Lite. Picking it up, I hightailed it out of the store tossing a twenty on the counter.

“Keep the change!” I yelled over my shoulder, smiling at the stupidity of it. I never stole a thing in my life and wasn’t about to start now. I ran right into my second fare for the night.

The Author with a Bun

She looked to be in her early thirties, brunette shoulder-length hair with hazel eyes. She turned away from me as I ran out of the store, protecting the large swell of her belly. “Hey mister, watch where you’re going!”

“I’m so sorry, Miss,” I replied, narrowly avoiding the collision, dropping my precious cargo on the cement walk. I was bent over rescuing my friends when she turned back around. I straightened and after a few seconds, she laughed, reached over and gently closed my mouth.

“You’ll catch flies like that,” she said, resting her other hand on her stomach. I must have been staring at her for quite a while when she patted the top of her belly. “I know, ridiculous isn’t it?”

“Normally, no,” I stammered. “Given the circumstances though…”

Placing a hand at her back, she winced. “I need to sit down.” Finding a nearby bench, she eased down into it and blew out a tired breath.

After putting my beers in the back seat, I walked over and joined her. “How far along are you?”

“Not far enough,” she said, turning to look at the moon.

Full and golden, it would have been beautiful if not for the other rock at its side. Tonight, that old moon would watch as its parent died, and this area of the solar system would end up with two hunks of dead rock, silently dancing in space. There would be no mourners.

“I thought the government offered pregnant women options, once they realized what was going to happen,” I said, watching her hands stroke the life inside her.

“They did,” she replied, turning to look at me. “If you were far enough along, they’d induce, or do a C-section, so you could at least have some time with your baby. If you weren’t very far, they offered free abortions and aftercare.” Her eyes clouded over. “Thoughtful of them, no?”

I ignored that. No way I was getting into that discussion this late in the game. “You fell into the gray area?”

Her lips pursed. “I found out I was pregnant two weeks before they had the big reveal. When they said we had six months, I thought about ending it, but held out to see if the solution they came up with would work. By the time it didn’t, it was too late.” She worked her way to stand with my help and rubbed her belly once more. “Thanks,” she said. “I guess I’ll be on my way home.”

“I can give you a ride. I’m a cabbie.”

Peals of laughter broke the drone of night. “Oh, that’s rich. My God, I haven’t laughed this hard in months. A cabbie, picking up fares on the last night we have on Earth!” Her laughter slowed to a mild chuckle. “And I thought I was a lost soul.”

I smiled. I hadn’t heard laughter, genuine or otherwise, in as many months as this woman hadn’t given it. “The offer stands. It’d save you from having to sit down every few hundred feet.” I watched as she gave it some thought.

“Okay,” she said, heading back to me. “You got yourself a fare.”

When I opened the front passenger door, she gave me the same look Emmitt had. “Everybody sits up front tonight,” I explained, holding the door. “And no charge for the trip.”

“Good thing,” she replied, easing herself into the seat, her hand protecting the precious cargo. “I don’t have any money.”

Giving her a smile, I shut the door, walked over to my side and got in. “Where to?”

“Three-nine-eight-five Fleet Avenue. Since there’s no charge, you can take your time and go the long route.”

Nodding, I pulled out and headed West. “If I can pry, what were you doing in town tonight?”

“Taking care of my dad,” she said, her green eyes misting over. “I’ve been here for a couple of weeks. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s early last year, and when it got worse, my brother and I put him in Horizon Place. They took great care of him, up until two months ago, when most of the staff left to be with their families. My brother Jimmy and I took turns every couple of weeks, coming in to stay with him. I don’t drive, so Jimmy would pick me up, bring me in and go home. When it was his turn, he’d take me home and come back.” She looked at the floor. “He died around two this afternoon. I went to give him his mid-day meds and found him sitting up in bed, eyes clear, with a smile on his face. I knew that look. He was having one of his lucid moments. The doctors said those would come and go, but lately, he hadn’t had one. When I tried to give him the handful of pills that had become his life, he just shook his head. “No more pills,” he told me, and gently pushed my hand aside. He looked at my stomach, set a trembling hand on it and raised his eyes to my face. “Name her Amy,” he whispered. “Amy.” Then he shut his eyes and…”

I saw her fighting the emotions.

“Amy was my mom’s name,” she said, through a few choked back tears. “Anyway, I covered dad, said my good-byes and called Jimmy to tell him and to come take me home. I didn’t get an answer. Tried all day, then figured he’d just bugged out to parts unknown. He used to do that when we were kids, vanish for days at a time.” She composed herself, turned to me and smiled. “So that’s how Amy and I got stuck in the city. I thought I could make it home on foot but didn’t count on having to stop so much. Glad you almost knocked me down, mister…”

“Austin,” I replied. “Just call me Austin.”

“Okay, Austin. I’m Lisa. Lisa Walker.”

When I first ran into her, I thought she looked vaguely familiar. Now I knew why. “Wait… not the Lisa Walker, the one who co-wrote that vampire novel, The Rise of Seth?”

Her eyes widened. “That’s me. I tried to go the traditional publishing route but got nowhere for a year, so I just self-published it. You mean you actually read it?”

“I did. I thought it was damn good. You and the guy you wrote it with… what was his name?”

“Sam Beach,” she replied, “but truth be told, he wasn’t a real person. The Bloodstone Chronicles, of which The Rise of Seth is the first book, was so daunting a task, that I created a separate persona to help me write them. It worked.”

I nodded and laughed. “It sure did.” I had a slew of other questions but asked the most pertinent one. “Where’s Amy’s father?”

Her face turned to stone. “In Hell, I hope, or soon to be there. Son-of-a-bitch bailed on me as soon as they told us we were all screwed.” Her eyes closed, and she softened a bit. “We were married for ten years. I wanted a few kids, but he didn’t seem too keen on the idea. Not that we didn’t try… a lot. Ah hell, maybe I would’ve done the same thing in his shoes.”

“I doubt that,” I said, rounding the bend onto Fleet Avenue. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her shrug.

“Doesn’t make much difference now, does it? Who did what to who? All I know is that my daughter and I are going to go out together. As one.” Both hands rested on her stomach. “Grandpa’s waiting to meet you,” she whispered. “You’ll love him.”

I found the address, pulled up into the narrow driveway, put old thirty-five in park and got out. She already had the door open when I got to her side, but I helped her out. “Let me walk you up the stairs,” I said, seeing the steep front porch leading to her door.

Nodding, she let me take her hand and we slowly ascended the ten gray concrete steps. At the front door, she took a moment to catch her breath. “Thanks for the ride and the help, Austin,” she said, then planted a soft kiss on my cheek.

“Wait,” I said, as she put her key in the door. “Don’t go yet.” Running back to my cab, I opened the trunk, fished around and smiled when I found what I was looking for. Closing the deck lid, I rushed back up the stairs, handing her a small wooden box with a gold crank protruding from the side. “Someone left this in my cab a few weeks ago,” I said. “It’s not much, but Amy should have a present, seeing that it’s close to Christmas.” The top was inscribed ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. For Amy.’

She wound the crank and the well-known tune chimed out in the crisp air. “It’s even got her name on it. How?”

I smiled and shrugged. “Who knows? I think she’ll like it.”

Resting the music box against her stomach, her eyes widened. “She kicked. She KICKED!” Tears fell unchallenged now, spilling on her teal colored shirt, as the tune played on. “Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of a little girl’s heart.”

I watched as she walked into the house then set my hand on her door after she closed it. “You’re welcome,” I whispered to the screen. “Both of you.” As I walked to my cab, I looked up at the night sky. The moon, oblivious to the event unfolding, grinned down at me while stars twinkled around it. Only the ever-growing sphere, rushing to keep its appointment with destiny, marred the beautiful curtain of night.

Through a Clouded Lens

The scene that greeted me when I got back into town, was one I’d hoped not to see. A few overturned cars – some on fire, some smashed to bits – created an obstacle course I slowly wove my cab through. Buildings smoldered. Their old timbers, weakened by hungry flames, shuddered and gave way, sending brick and mortar crashing to the ground. A semi, flipped on its side, blocked my path. As I put old thirty-five in reverse, a man’s voice rang out in the destruction.

“What was it all for?” he screamed. “Is this our reward? To be erased from the cosmic register, like some misplaced decimal point in an accountant’s ledger?”

I saw him in my rear-view mirror, railing at the sky, his right fist clenched and shaking at the moon. In his left hand, an empty bottle, and as I drew closer, I could just make out a Golden label pasted across its width. The man staggered, turning when he heard the hum from my engine, and threw the empty in my direction.

“A curse on all who live!” he cried out, falling to his knees in a sobbing heap.

Stopping my cab, I put in park, shut it off and removed the keys. No sense tempting fate. This poor soul would be fare number three, and it wouldn’t do to have my trusty steed ripped off before I could even get him into the back seat. The bottle, having missed me by a good ten feet, rolled away without breaking and came to rest against the curb.

Walking over, I picked it up and smiled. “Glenmorangie. Eighteen years old. Exquisite taste, sir,” I said, as I approached him.

His head rose, and he looked from side to side, apparently trying to figure out which one of me was real. “What?” he said, after settling on the right one of us.

“Eighteen-year-old single malt Scotch from the highlands. You have excellent taste. Let me help you up,” I said, extending a hand to him.

“Ferk you,” he said, slapping at my hand. He missed. “I dun needsh your helph.” His words, just a moment ago clear and well chosen, turned to Robin Williams imitation of a back-alley wino.

“I think you do, my friend,” I said, leaning down to pull him up.

“Wha fur?” he slurred, trying to will his body to stand. He failed. “Ish all gonna be over shoon. Shtand… sith… lay. What diffrensh does it make now?”

Catching him under the arm as he threatened to slip back down, I slowly edged him over to my cab. “Come on. I’ll take you home. Where do you live?”

He broke from my grasp, leaning back against the rear door. “Get jer handsh off me,” he said, indignation filling his voice. “Yew dun touch me, or I’ll shue!” Waving a finger in my face, he cocked one brow. “An I know lotsha good layers… loiersh… atterniesh.” The absurdity of what he’d just said must have dawned on him, and he convulsed in fits of laughter. “Oh, thatsh great. We… we’re all gonna die, but I’mma shue you.”

I joined him in laughter. It felt good to do so. Reaching for the door handle, I steadied him again. “Well, I better find a good attorney too, then.”

Abruptly, he grabbed my shirt, his laughter replaced with heart-wrenching tears. “You dun unnshtand. I’m too young ta die. I got my whooole life ta liver.” He nodded. “I was gonna be rish. Own my own tek company. Then my old man getsh shick. I dint wanna take care of him… I dint, but then they came out an told ush about thish BIIIG space rock, and how we’re all dead. I wentsh ta shkool for four yearsh.” He held up his hand in front of my face. “Count ‘em four. One… two…” his eyes tried to focus, “and two moresh. Thash four. I had offersh from BIIG companish. Then, thish… thish SHIT happensh.” He leaned close enough to give me a breath buzz. “Now I can’t even gets a job in a freakin DELI!” He shook his head. “Ish not fair.”