The highway, rendered indistinct by rising heat waves, dropped on its undulating descent from the Continental Divide into the Middle Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Ron Godwin shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun and felt as if he could see forever. And forever was blue. At least the mountains on the eastern horizon took on a robin’s egg wash. The biggest one was likely Sandia Peak, which made the smudge rising from its base his destination—Albuquerque. Where a new job awaited his arrival.
This part of the world seemed to be pretty much made of rock and sand and sage and cacti and sunflowers. But for some reason he failed to understand, he liked it. Maybe it was the thin air, which smelled fresh despite dust a light wind kicked up. Or perhaps it was the silence. The eerie quiet that rang in his ears while he stood leaning on the open door of his Mazda as if he were the last man left on the planet in a sci-fi doomsday movie. It should have frightened him. Instead, he felt liberated. A man standing where God could see him instead of hiding in a mob. This was the first time he could ever remember being alone…truly alone. It was almost as if he could see into the Beyond. Certainly nothing like LA where people and noise and urban odors clogged the landscape.
A stream of speeding semis and cars trapped behind them rushed past, shattering the illusion. He got back into his Miata and eased onto Interstate-40 East. He was reaching to turn on the radio when he noticed a figure walking at the side of the highway about a mile ahead of him. He didn’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but this was a new world with new people and new customs. Maybe it would be an Indian who could expose him to a culture he knew nothing about. Or a Mexican up from Chihuahua seeking to reunite with his family.
He swallowed his disappointment when the hiker turned out to be a young white guy about his own age. Still, maybe he could learn something about this land he intended to make his new home. The stranger accepted the offer of a ride and settled into the passenger’s seat before extending his hand and offering his name in a clear baritone.
“Zack Jansing. Nice wheels.”
Ron offered his thanks, his hand, and his name before throwing the car into gear and pulling back onto the highway. Within half a mile, he was convinced he’d made a good choice. Zack was a talker, a fount of useful information. Twenty miles down the road, Ron knew as much about Albuquerque as any Chamber of Commerce brochure would have revealed. The companionship was good and easy.
Before long, an overpass loomed ahead of them. Ron blinked when Zack told him to take the exit ramp. Instinctively, his foot hit the brake pedal, slowing the Mazda.
“Hey, man, I don’t mind hauling you to Albuquerque, but I’m not up for a side trip. I’ve been driving since early this morning."
“Just do it,” Zack said.
Something in the other man’s voice caused him to glance over. Zack was holding a small semi-automatic pistol leveled at Ron’s chest. The hitcher’s flat gray eyes told Ron all he needed to know. He tromped on the accelerator. The powerful motor responded, pressing them both against the seats.
“No way,” Ron shouted. “If you’re gonna shoot me, you’ll have to do it while we’re doing a hundred.”
“Don’t be an idiot. I just want your money and your wheels. Pull over.”
Zack shoved the pistol into Ron’s ribs, causing him to flinch. The speeding car veered, but he regained control.
Ron gave the other man’s arm a sharp jab with his elbow. “Get that thing outa my side!”
That’s when things went wrong. A pop little louder than a cap pistol filled the cabin. Something punched him in the side. He had time to smell cordite and feel the pain in his chest before he lost control of his arms.
The raspberry-colored Miata meandered left across a lane of traffic, plunged into the median, and bounced into the westbound traffic before losing to the laws of physics, rolling over…and over and over.
Ron sat quietly in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Albuquerque watching people go about their business. They were all strangers, of course. He knew no one here. But there was something different about them. Or maybe it was him. No one paid him any attention. Not one person glanced his way. Not one eye met his. In fact, for a moment, he thought a woman was going to sit on his lap before a man called for her attention.
He glanced at his watch. Odd. He didn’t have one. His diamond signet ring was gone, as well. He realized he had no personal possessions at all. Something else. The noises people made as they passed seemed oddly hollow. Eerie. Other-worldly.
His eyes fixed on a clock on the far wall. At 4:52 p.m. on Thursday, June 26, Ron Godwin understood something profound. He was dead. Then why was he here? Alone like this, observing the world he had been born into from the Beyond.
Suddenly, he heard a deep, commanding voice. “Ah, here you are, Ron. You eluded us there for a moment.”
Instantly, he was swept up in a blinding white vortex.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading, and let me hear from you.
New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.