A Wild ,Wild Party.
No doubt," said the bartender, pointing the rifle straight at Tom. "But even I know this rifle ain't real." He released fire and watched it sail just inches wide of Tom, who screeched like a little girl.
It’s crazy what a divorce can do to you; Tom never imagined he would be speeding halfway across the LA-Las Vegas highway, clocking 70 miles per hour. His wife—ex-wife rather—was running for public office; NYC’s assistant mayor. And someone, obviously her romantically involved campaign manager, convinced her to offload Tom; her ex-convict of a husband—that she didn’t need to hold on to stain which would jeopardize her chances of office.
Tom swerved his car suddenly round an oncoming Toyota. From the jump, this was a death trip.
He was distraught by the heartbreak. No one could imagine how painful it was for Tom to endure such a crisis. And all he did wrong was forge an Italian passport.
I should never have told her
But if he hadn’t, she would have found out anyway. Making the switch from the civil service to the assistant mayor was swift for her. She knew all of the city’s secrets and her bank account was loaded. Yet Tom would be getting nothing but the house.
Just the mouse-infested house in Fresno? That’s all I get Sarah?
No, he deserved better. That’s why he cashed in on the house. $100,000, the realtor called it. And all of it was right in a suitcase at the back of his trunk. He was in the sixth heaven; peaking the seven. He could meet anyone he wanted; have anyone he wished for, and make even more playing Blackjack.
I’m going to win a million at the casino!
Yet, after 5 years of a marriage that transformed Tom’s life, the second major tragedy of his life happened when he sped into a loaded water truck. His vehicle seared into half, throwing him tumbling out of the driver seat into the unconscious.
It must have been what lasted half an hour because Tom woke to full consciousness slumped on the sandy side of the road. How he escaped death, he had no idea. He could only thank his lucky stars—of course, God didn’t exist. Who believes that anyways? Tom shook the dirt off his knees. Besides that, he was clean as a whistle. He looked over at his car. It was a wreck.
There was no driving that.
He tried his phone; no signal. Wrong, battery crushed. He inspected the daylight road in front of him. If he was truly unconscious for half an hour, then the time would be 7 am. Enough time to flag down a vehicle. After waiting an impatient fifteen minutes, however, Tom gave up the waiting.
He would walk, he decided.
There was nothing to see for a mile. For a while, all he saw was blue sky, tarred road, and sandy sides. The nearest destination was Vegas, and he had no plans to walk for long. When he found no vehicle coming his way, he ventured into the sandy fields.
Maybe, he thought, there was a ranch hidden somewhere behind those trees. There were a few ranches in these parts; the movies he watched were enough confirmation. And he was right, because he soon stumbled upon a gated property, not very far from the highway. Beyond the barbed fence and large gate extending three meters wide and around was the smallest ranch he had ever seen.
It wasn’t even a ranch. Peering through the gate, Tom found the property had a few buildings lined around a town square. The whole place looked like a ‘40s Hollywood set; classic mid-West. Tom laughed at the idea. Was this his way into the movie theatres? Probably not, but he needed to enter this residence, to salvage any chance of getting fixing his car early.
A sign, a rather shaggy signboard, was propped up against the gate. This, it seemed was Tom’s only way in. The words on the signboard weren’t daunting enough. Do Not Enter.
I’d rather get stopped at gunpoint; than get robbed on the highway.
So, Tom scaled the fence. Years in prison could teach you really vital survival skills. He landed with a thud, but it echoed as a guitar would in a cathedral. He saw no one around; not a single soul. It felt like a ghost town, but it was homely.
I need a phone.
Tom walked to the only building in the town that looked like a bar. The layout of the bar was synonymous with its 40s themed environs. Maybe this truly was a Hollywood set; or a sort of campsite where a group of enthusiastic groupies would gather to spend the holidays. It made perfect sense for it to be vacant at this time of the year until Tom found himself face to face with an appearing bartender.
He was not a very friendly one. What bartender doesn’t greet the customer? Yet, this bartender enjoyed wiping glass cups a lot more.
Tom pulled a seat at the counter, and the bartender welcomed him for the first time. When Tom asked for a phone, the bartender placed the glass cup down on the counter. "Not again…" he mumbled.
Tom was patient. This was private property. He had to be nice. He apologized for the intrusion.
“I need help,” he said and he narrated his situation but said nothing about the accident.
"My car broke down a few kilometers away. My phone died. I need to call my wife."
The bartender sighed. He was rather handsome, like the old butlers who served Presidents in the ‘40s. He was roundly bald, with a cute chin that signified wittiness. He studied Tom for a while, "Did you see the signboard?"
"But you came in anyway?"
Tom began to feel giddy. "I can leave. I don't want any trouble."
The bartender chuckled, before waltzing away to return his glass cups. "Oh, but where's the exit?"
Tom shook softly. "I don’t… do you have a phone or not."
The bartender shook his head keenly. "House privileges."
Tom rolled his eyes. "How much for a drink?"
The bartender poured him something that looked like bourbon, then slid it to him. Tom caught it halfway. "It's on the house," the bartender said.
Tom took one and last sip. Nasty stuff. "About that phone now?"
The bartender’s expression melted. He frowned. "Did you not see the sign?"
The Do Not Disturb sign? Tom asked
"Is there another?" said the bartender.
Tom felt uneasy and began to leave. The bartender rushed to his aide. Take a seat, he said, I’ll get you your phone call.
The bartender walked out of the bar and returned immediately.
“What is this place?” Tom asked.
The bartender returned to his place behind the counter.
“Nowhere actually,” he said.
What a strange thing to say. "You're right in the middle of the highway."
"Oh yes," said the bartender heaving, "But we're hidden from the public eye, you see. People pass by our town and all they see is a sand field. Yet here you are inside the bar of a seemingly hidden place. Clearly, there must be more to this meeting."
"Look," said Tom. "I just want to go home; my wife must be worried."
The bartender’s eyelids widened with mischief. "Good to know," he said. "Some couples in the town are getting married tomorrow as well. There must be love in the air."
Tom bent his head. "I didn't see anyone on my way here."
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, slow and gentle. Tom spilled his drink. The bartender, on the other hand, didn't flinch. He moved swiftly to welcome his new visitor. The whole time, the visitor was kept out of view behind the door. He tried to eavesdrop on the conversation and heard nothing but squeals of laughter.
Tom couldn’t wait any longer. He stormed to the front door and pushed it open. Only the bartender was at the entrance. No one else.
"I heard laughter… "
"They're gone," the bartender said dismissively. His aura was different. He looked rebellious all of a sudden.
"They're afraid of you.” He continued, “you remind them of a life they once had."
"That makes no sense."
"Oh, but it will. Come with me."
Tom froze. "Where?"
The bartender swirled in surprise. He was enjoying this. "You want a phone call, don’t you?"
“Then come along…”
And so Tom walked with the bartender, passing the wooden apartments of the town. Hours had passed since he'd been here, but somehow it was still very much dawn. He couldn’t see much ahead of him—the sand had picked up—but he could feel faces appearing and disappearing in the window panes of the rusty story buildings.
The bartender was saying something about making a call himself. "I put a call through to the National Corpse department. The coroner's on his way."
The bartender was either a lunatic or an alcoholic, Tom surmised. He simply nodded and played along.
As soon as he got his phone call, he would call the Toll truck company and wait on the highway. Toll trucks were never far, this side of town.
"Here we are."
"Where are we exactly?" Tom asked.
They stood just in front of a little shed the size of an ice cream truck. Another eery signboard dangled above this shed, 'Straight Ticket to Hell.'
"I'm not going in there," said Tom.
The bartender sighed. "You still don’t get it, do you?" He shrugged. 'Well, I guess I have to take extreme measures." And then the bartender entered swiftly into the shed and returned with two armed rifles the size of a log.
"Jesus! What are these guns for?"
The bartender tossed one to Tom, which he caught of course. "We are going to play a game, my friend. Whoever loses confesses," His tone suddenly dropped to a whisper. "Because one of us is lying, and I know for a fact that that isn't me. Step back!"
Spooked, Tom held his new rifle and followed the bartender's instructions. "You're crazy," he repeated.
Suddenly, Tom could feel the presence of the whole town around him; the prying eyes of the inhabitants of this mad, desolate place. The incident felt surreal and he felt an unnatural pang for the town.
Am I gonna die here?
"Now boy, listen close," said the bartender, cocking his rifle. "You had an accident on the highway. I saw it with my very own eye. I don’t know what condition you're in, but it seems you're losing a life."
"Shut up!" Tom whimpered, his hands shaking from the weight of the rifle. "You're crazy!"
"No doubt," said the bartender, pointing the rifle straight at Tom. "But even I know this rifle ain't real." He released fire and watched it sail just inches wide of Tom, who screeched like a little girl.
"You're nuts!" Tom screamed, scrambling to his knees. He didn’t know how to work a rifle, so he raised his hands and begged.
The bartender cooked his rifle yet again. "You should've read the sign." And shot again at Tom's feet. He heard a rumble around him; an invisible crowd was watching him. Faces of ghosts started to appear mysteriously. These were wraiths; shadows; ghosts! The kind of things he dreamt as a kid.
Tom sprang to his feet and ran.
"You can't run from the truth, boy." The coroner's almost here!"
More shots missed Tom's scalp. But he kept running, searching for a safe haven. He tried turning the knobs on the doors of the townhouses, but each would close shut as soon as he neared the portico.
"Fuck! I'm dying."
"Indeed," echoes the bartender. "You are dead. We all are. But this our heaven, not yours."
The bartender released fire one more time and this caught Tom in the shoulders. Tom felt the excruciating agony of a bullet as he crashed to the ground. He spits out sand and rolled over. He couldn’t move; he was losing a lot of blood.
The bartender pressed a foot on his chest. It felt cold to his skin. He heard the laugh of spirits; the cheer of ghosts and the crying of the invisible. His vision melted from a 40s town slowly into the sound of a siren in the distance. The police—no, no; an ambulance.
“The coroner's here," Tom heard the bartender echo before fainting into a waking trance.
Tom woke with a jolt. He wasn't at the bar or in the strange town anymore, there were no bartenders trying to kill him or ghosts trying to laugh him to death. He was back fully alive on the highway to Las Vegas. Or was he?
“No,” he gasped looking down at his left hand. Tucked neatly between his fingers was a laminated document. It was a regular passport-style identity card, with his name written boldly. The title that followed this license reads ‘Death Certificate’. The date printed boldly on the license was enough confirmation. It was today, the same day as the accident.
He turned to his left where a nasty incident was unfolding. Right there, was his car all tumbled and crashed on the side of the road. It was surrounded by a group of first responders and an ambulance. He approached the scene, wanting seriously to understand the situation.
“Save me,” he pleaded with the nurse, but she couldn’t hear or feel him. He was truly invincible, a ghost; dead.
This was also a big headline for the newspapers. A crowd of reporters took pictures and asked for comments from the officials. Walking through the crowd like a ghost, Tom found himself face to face with his corpse. A team of officers and some nurses attended to his dead body. The most uninformed was the coroner.
"Date and time of death is…"
It corresponded with the numbers on Tom’s document. It can't be.
"Can you see," the coroner explained to the male nurses wrapping up Tom’s corpse in a bag. "Those are lethal gunshot wounds… self-inflicted."
The coroner nodded quite severely to himself. "Crashes his car, survives; and then, shoots himself in the shoulder?"
One of the nurses nodded.
The coroner continued, “Now I get it; the victim was drunk and driving; blasting loud music; loading a shotgun rifle. He shoots himself in the head, misses by inches, and hits his shoulder instead. Bleeding out, the victim crashes his car into a loaded truck.”
The same nurse nodded again. So, a suicide? he asked. A suicide, the coroner confirmed
Tom watched the scene incredulously and even tried communicating. But he was nothing but air, a mere spirit in the presence of living beings. A large bus came along. A banner, so obvious to see, adorned the side of the bus. It read 'One-way bus to hell."
The bus honked and Tom reluctantly hopped in. The metal doors opened grimly to reveal some flesh-stripped impatient passengers. The driver of the bus was nothing but a sack of bones masked from head to toe by a black cloak.
Turning slightly, the driver extended a hand. Tom handed in his death certificate. "What's it like there?" He asked.
The driver's face was hidden by a cowl. His voice was a distant echo in the night desert.
"It’s a wild, wild party…"
The driver revved his engine as his words melted into a frightening chuckle that seemed to last forever on an endless trip to hell.