Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Kaylen followed Tom down two flights of stairs to an opening that emerged into an enormous space—a pub in a basement! The pub did not look like an earth-pub at all. It had the appearance of a bowling alley out of an 80’s film, the lanes set just beyond a series of brick arches that gave the pub a grand appearance, despite the lack of natural lighting.

A man wearing a crumpled baseball cap sat on a stool by the door, stacks of green prize tickets, strung together, in his hands—the sort of tickets that Kaylen remembered redeeming at Adventure Zone for turns on the space commander arcade game, as a child. Tom fumbled around in his pockets for a moment and then withdrew a string of his own tickets. “Evening, Chaucer,” Tom said. “Is my usual spot available?”

Chaucer took the tickets, examined them, and then tore off two of them and handed the rest back to Tom. He shook his head. “Not your normal spot. Darius is here, said you’d be arriving soon. Got you a booth –second one from the wall.” Chaucer waved towards the far wall.

“Oh,” said Tom, surprised. He motioned to Kaylen to follow. “Darius. He’s a friend of mine—actually, and also something of a renaissance man.”

The booth’s red leather seats had a dull luster to them, and the waxed, wooden table already had several rings of water on it next to an empty glass, indicating that Darius had been there for awhile, or else had been drinking quickly. With a mug of fizzy drink raised in one hand, he raised it and took a sip as Tom appeared. “Tom!” he said, with a note of melancholy in his voice. “The man I need to see right now. You’ve always seemed to understand me.” Darius stopped as he noticed Kaylen for the first time. “Who might this be?” he said, with a sly grin at Tom. “Brought a lady-friend to our chat, eh? You are a fox, my man.”

“Passenger,” said Tom, brushing off whatever awkwardness might be occasioned by this comment and sitting down opposite Darius. “This is Kaylen. Kaylen, Darius is one of the main designers of the self-driving taxis we were observing earlier.” Kaylen sat down.

“Taxis?” said Darius. “More like self-driving catastrophes.” He gave Kaylen, who wore a puzzled expression, a sideways glance. “You’re new here. You have a fresh pair of eyes. Tell me—what do you think about them? I just need some honest feedback.” He looked at Kaylen with an intensity that startled her. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Its…an interesting idea,” she stammered.

“An interesting idea!” Darius repeated, spreading his arms wide. “But that’s not what you really think—you think it’s annoyed how slowly they work, and how silly and impractical they look next to real taxis!”

“Well,” said Kaylen, trying to think of something hopeful, “Yeah. But this is just the first iteration, right? The technology will improve right and get better?”

Darius nodded, as if expecting this answer. He looked down at the sparkly foam sitting at the top of his drink. “You’re an idealist, I can tell. That’s what I thought, too, when I got here—let’s improve the place! The point of purgatory, however, I’m sure Tom here has already filled you in on.”

“Something about…purification,” said Kaylen, looking at Tom. Tom nodded in agreement.

“That’s more or less it,” said Darius. “But what does purification mean? How do you teach someone patience? You give them something that causes normal people impatience, so they can practice patience. So, I have a theory about purgatory–”

“Just a theory!” broke in Tom. “Don’t think of this as gospel.”

Darius paused, and then nodded. “Yes, it is a theory, but it’s this: purgatory is designed to be irritating: it has long lines, annoying waits, uncomfortable weather year-round, and…” Darius paused and looked down at his drink again before continuing, “gin fizzes that never quite rise to the level of a buzz until you’ve drunk two dozen of them and are about to burst.”

“Anyway,” continued Darius. “I thought to myself, I can improve this place! I’ll engineer a self-driving car that coordinates with all the other self-driving cars in order to optimize traffic, so that taxi drivers can simply relax and the traffic will be so smooth that we won’t see this state of perpetual gridlock. That was my dream.” A wistful look came into Darius’s eyes. “That I could leave my mark on purgatory so that one day travelers would pass through. But you know what? For each annoyance that inventors have conquered over the centuries, dozens of new annoyances have sprung up to take their place. Our latest iteration was supposed to achieve level 12 self-driving automation—the highest level—but instead we have simply engineered a quivering WRECK of a machine, so that now…I need another gin fizz!” This last part of his monologue Darius directed at a passing waiter.

The conversation lulled. Little did Kaylen realize during this moment that less than 15 minutes later, she would be on the run from Tom, through this world she had just arrived in, feeling more alive than she had in all her life, despite the fact that she was now dead.

“I’d like a gin fizz, too!” said Kaylen.

To be continued…

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

The pub was tucked away down a brick alley of Byzantine proportions. The walls of the buildings on either side swung upwards, and an arch stretched over the entrance to the alley with large, block letters reading: “Public houses of the 12th Ward.” Tom led the way at a brisk pace, Kaylen following him.

Kaylen’s demeanor appeared placid, but internally it was as if an orchestra was practicing for a concert, each section practicing its own bits, so that the resulting cacophony made it impossible for a listener to concentrate on any one melody.

What is happening? Thought Kaylen. She reviewed some possibilities in her head:

1. she had been kidnapped and her memory erased. She had only ever known of this happening in movies such as The Bourne Identity, but certainly it was possible; this could be a trafficking plot, and the story so outlandish as to coerce her into going along

2. she was dreaming. Unlikely – she had pinched herself several times to try and wake up; she also had tried slapping herself in the face, but the only thing this accomplished was to cause Tom to cock his head back at her and give her a quizzical glance

3. she was dead. But this could not be the case – death could not be so colorful

4. she was dead but had been reincarnated; this presented itself as an interesting possibility, but it seemed like a fairly unlikely option; and anyway, if she had been reincarnated, hadn’t someone forgotten to wipe her memory? Because if her memory had been wiped, she would not have been able to remember…

Henry. She needed to find out if he was here. Or had come through. If this is purgatory, she thought. He might be here.

Listen to yourself! You sound insane! She thought.

“Can we back up?” she said abruptly, tapping Tom on the shoulder. He turned around, stepping to the side of the alley to allow other pedestrians to pass. In the alley on both sides were pubs and stores of various shapes and with signs that hung from quaint boards with names such as “The Ugly Duckling,” “Gin & Whitaker,” and a repair shop called “Jameson & Sons.”

“Why yes! You have questions I assume? I will answer all the questions you may have –once we get to the pub. I am so thirsty!” Tom turned and continued walking before pointing at a sign reading “Jameson & Sons.” “Never go there, by the way,” he said. “It’s a tourist trap. Should be obvious, but it isn’t; was established last year, but they’re claiming to be a family-owned store. Gives people a fallacious sense of shopping at a place that’s established. The thing is, for there to be both a Jameson and a son working at the same store, they would have first of all both passed away around the same time, and then have to have found each other once the second one arrived.”

“You don’t think there’s a Mrs. Jameson and they just started a family?” said Kaylen, playing along idly with the conversation.

Tom furrowed his brow with a confused expression. “But…nobody has kids here or gets married…it’s not possible.”

Now Kaylen was the one with the surprised look on her face. “What do you MEAN, no one can have kids?”

Tom had an embarrassed look on his face. “I’ll explain when you’re older,” he said.

“I’m 26!” said Kaylen, crossing her arms.

“…In earth years, yes,” said Tom. “In purgatory years, you’re not even one!”

“But here’s the pub,” said Tom, as he disappeared into a door that led downward down a flight of steps. The sign next to the door was small and tacked up with a brace of nails. It read, “No admittance except by invitation.”

To be continued…

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Full Story Here

Tom blew his car horn as a squat, cube-shaped car switched lanes in front of him. “Self-driving HOOEY!” he muttered.

“You have self-driving cars?” said Kaylen. “We are just now getting that sort of technology in America. That is so cool!”

“Cool?” repeated Tom. “Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. Take a look, though!” Tom pointed to the car that had just cut in front of him.

The car had four wheels but otherwise looked alien to Kaylen’s eyes, unlike any automobile she had ever seen. It was a box-shaped car with vertical windows on all sides, akin to a gondola, and the wheels were small and appeared to be able to go in any direction, similar to the wheels of a dolly. Despite this modern design, the car seemed to trundle along in a very uncertain fashion. It moved a foot into Tom’s lane and then stopped and readjusted. On the top of the car was a reflective orb suspended like a bell from a small frame, and above this belfry was an antenna that pointed upward. The car continued moving very cautiously forward, stopping abruptly as a sheet of paper blew across the roadway.

Tom honked again. “These self-driving cars are so flighty. It’s amazing that they move at all. They are so sensitive to interruptions, that they can barely move above 5 miles per hour.”

“Well, new technology always has hiccups when it’s first introduced,” noted Kaylen.

“Spoken like someone who has witnessed the unveiling of many new technologies!” said Tom brightly. “You should have seen the first prototype of these cars. They were the opposite of now. They were forever bursting with energy, so they would routinely be bumping into cars in front of them. Just a sort of persistent tap in the rear as we were moving forward in stop-and-go traffic. Very annoying. So the manufacturer of the car reprogrammed them to be safer. Now, the cars of petrified of moving at all!”

Kaylen listened to all this, absorbing the sight of the timid car. It completed its lane change and seemed to settle down somewhat, having for the moment reached an equilibrium. “I’m sure they will work out the glitches before too long.”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Everyone is chattering about innovation, but innovation here always seem to hit some snags.”

“The point of purgatory,” continued Tom, “As you may have read in certain religious texts, is purification, or expiation. It’s not the fire of hell—it’s the fire of purification. And what better way to expiate and make someone suffer…than by making them sit in traffic.” Tom said this last part as his cab slowed to a complete stop. To the right, a giant billboard displayed a map of the traffic circles, with each circle colored brightly in either yellow or red colors. As Kaylen watched the billboard, the outer circle’s color turned from yellow to red.

“Hmm. Want to get a bite to eat?” said Tom. “There’s a pub not far from here that has exquisite Caribbean-inspired street tacos.”

Kaylen looked at the tightly interlocked cars all around them. “But, how will we get there?”

“Come with me!” said Tom, putting his car in park and opening his door to get out. “This jam will take at least an hour to sort out. We have the time.”

To be continued…

Death and Taxis: Chapter 1

This story is inspired by a conversation with a friend–B. L. White–about a deceased taxi driver who gives people rides in the land of the dead.

“Where are you headed?” said Tom, taking a tire-squealing right turn onto Purgatorial Circle as he attempted to beat the oncoming rush of the traffic circle.

“Excuse me,” said the passenger, “This is very embarrassing…but could you please, before I tell you where I am headed—tell me where I came from?” The passenger, Kaylen, had a strange sensation, akin to the feeling of blacking out, and a vague, mostly physical recollection of the feeling of throwing up, and then of—this! Waking up, the growing sense of alarm at not remembering the immediate past and anxiety of not knowing…did something happen? Kaylen looked for clues at her appearance and clothing. Everything seemed normal: she was wearing a wooly blue-and-green sweater and grey jeans.

She sized up all these things in a moment as Tom glanced in the rear-view mirror and began to answer her question. “Well, if you’re here, then…well…” His voiced trailed off for a moment as he thought. “Well, you see…you have died. And now you’re here on the other side.”

Kaylen tried to process these words. Instead, she became curious about the road. “This is a traffic circle, you said?” She asked. “It’s pretty long, huh?”
“Longest there is,” said Tom. “For some reason the planners of this place didn’t like the idea of stoplights and intersections here. So they did what everyone does—they made this place an enormous traffic circle. Also, the architects have always been obsessed with ring-shapes. You know Dante and the 9 rings…?” Tom looked in the rearview mirror and was met with an empty expression. “Nah? Well, he was just an old dude—more my generation—and he wrote about heaven, hell, and purgatory. And he theorized that the places are divided into concentric rings—starting with the outer ring and working inwards. Or outwards…I don’t remember!” Tom said brightly. “Anyway, the point is—Dante got it more or less correct, only instead of rings, it’s really a bunch of concentric traffic circles. Dante didn’t know what a car was.”

Tom looked again at Kaylen and saw that her eyes had glazed over and that she had no idea what he was talking about. “Look, I’m rambling, but the point is, we have to get through 9 different traffic circles, and you got here at a pretty busy time of year actually—December always seems to be a rough time, and there’s a civil war going on in the East right now, so that’s also increased the number of visitors considerably. So the traffic is pretty bad today. You have until we get to the center to figure out where you’re going. No need to rush, though!”