Monday, February 4, 2013
The Last Fare
THE LAST FARE
Daniel Skye A.K.A. Randy Benivegna
Eddie Callihan was a natural born outsider. But this fact caused him no distress. He was more than content with his solitary existence.
Eddie was trapped inside his own world. It was a particularly small world he occupied, but it belonged to him and him alone. Nobody else.
He wasn’t an introvert; more of a misanthrope. Shyness wasn’t one of his qualities. He just despised people as if it was his sole function in life. And he was never afraid to let it show. His hatred was palpable. If it were any more apparent, it would’ve been scripted on his forehead.
That’s why many questioned his career choice. Though, the answer was simple for Eddie. Driving a taxi can be the ideal job for a loner.
Twenty minutes after the ride is over, most passengers can’t recall what the drivers face looked like. The truth–as harsh as it may sound–is that most people don’t really care about the life of a cabbie. It’s simply not that interesting. They don’t want to hear any boring stories or corny jokes. They just want you to drive.
And Eddie was perfectly satisfied with that aspect. The majority of his fares sat peacefully in the back, texting on their cell phones. Reading newspapers or magazines. He rarely had to put up with any of that “how about this weather?” nonsense.
Occasionally he’d pick up a fare that was blessed with the gift of gab. That’s when he’d tap on the glass partition that separates driver from passenger. Then he’d direct their eyes to the sign mounted above the glove compartment. The sign clearly read “Don’t Disturb the Driver” and was Eddie’s personal touch.
Or if that didn’t work, he’d turn up the radio and let the music drown out the mindless chatter. That usually gave his passengers the hint. Although this trick did end up costing him in the tip department.
Despite his vile attitude and loathsome personality, Eddie was an obvious candidate for the job. Having been born and raised in Greenville, Eddie knew all the streets, all the routes. It was common knowledge to him.
February 14th, A.K.A. Valentine’s Day. For countless years, it was a day that Eddie spent without companionship. And that year was no different for him. No girlfriend, no date, no plans for after work.
Eddie was parked along the curb on Main Street, wrapping up the end of a twelve-hour shift. The winter frost was falling from the sky, accumulating rapidly on his windshield. The temperature was dropping with each passing hour. Soon the snow would turn to sleet and ice. Eddie almost pitied the next driver that had to take over his shift. Almost.
Even with the heat turned up, there was a dull chill surrounding him. Outside the wind rose fiercely, sending discarded trash and other debris scattering in every direction. Eddie clicked on his wiper blades and checked the digital clock on his radio. Two minutes to nine o’clock. Two minutes and he could head back to the station, call it a night.
Eddie peered out at the dark, empty street. Main Street was virtually deserted, which surprised Eddie considering it was a hallmark holiday. He expected to see couples strolling down the block, their hands clasped together in unison. He expected to see people carting around bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates.
But the impending blizzard certainly didn’t make for a romantic evening. So most people seemed to use their best judgment and opted to stay indoors. That’s why Eddie’s car was the only one on the street. He peeked at the clock again. One minute to go, he thought.
He checked his side view mirrors, making sure the snow hadn’t covered them completely. Adjusting his rearview mirror, he became startled when he spotted the shadowy figure approaching his cab.
The backdoor opened, and a man hopped in the backseat. His grey hoodie was wet, clad in snow. He was young, only a teenager. Average weight, average height. Nothing really stood out about him.
Eddie didn’t care enough to ask aloud. But if he had, he would’ve questioned the young man’s choice of winter attire. No hat, no gloves, no heavy jacket. Not even a scarf. That last part Eddie couldn’t blame him for. He wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a scarf.
“I need to get to Paradise Avenue,” the young man said. His tone was a mix of urgency and desperation.
“I’m off duty,” Eddie dismissed him.
“This is very important,” the young man said, sounding more desperate. “There’s someone waiting for me and I can’t disappoint them.”
“I’m off duty,” Eddie repeated with the patience of a DMV clerk.
“I’ll give you everything I have in my wallet,” the young man said bluntly. That snagged Eddie’s attention.
“How much is in your wallet?”
“There’s one hundred and twenty dollars in here. It’s yours if you take me the whole way.” Eddie considered it for a moment. That was all the time he needed.
“I’ve never heard of Paradise Avenue,” he said. “It’s not in Greenville. If it was, I’d know.”
“It’s not far from here,” the young man assured him. “I could lead the way. Start out by going west down Main Street. When you get to Sycamore Avenue, make a left.”
“It’s your money,” Eddie shrugged. He put the car in drive and started off cautiously down the snow-coated street.
He kept trying to get a glimpse of his passenger in the backseat. But the streetlamps were dim and the rearview mirror revealed nothing more than a dark silhouette. He couldn’t even make out the color of the kids eyes or hair.
The lack of light gave this young man a featureless, almost shapeless appearance. He was the shape of darkness. Eddie was tempted to click on the dome light just to get a better look.
There was an unnerving vibe this man gave off. Not necessarily threatening, but it was enough to put Eddie on his guard. It was times like these Eddie wished he’d carried a gun.
His coworkers urged him on numerous occasions to purchase a pistol. But he refused to join the club. There are enough crazy cabbies out there with guns, he thought. You don’t need one more.
The young man’s voice seemed familiar. Although he didn’t get a good first look at him, Eddie was positive he knew him from somewhere.
He wasn’t anybody famous. Eddie was certain of that. He had a knack for picking out celebrities. Mainly because he spent a fair amount of free time writing hate mail to various actors and musicians.
It was the newspapers. Eddie was always browsing the help wanted ads of local papers. He liked to have options.
Out of boredom, he would occasionally skim through the articles. He loved the local crime reports, where they would list the recent DWI or possession charges.
This kid–grey hoodie and all–was featured in one of the articles. He couldn’t recall what section of the paper he had seen him in. He wasn’t even totally sure if this was the same kid. Should I ask him about it? Eddie wondered silently. Nah, probably best to leave it alone.
He clicked his left blinker and turned on Sycamore. “Where from here?” Eddie asked.
“Keep driving,” the young man advised him. “I’ll let you know when to turn again.”
“What’s your name, kid?” Eddie inquired. This marked the first time he had ever bothered to ask one of his passengers.
“Sam Shaw,” he replied. The name struck a bitter chord with Eddie. He recalled a Danny Shaw from his high school days. He was a drug dealer that ratted on all the other local dealers to avoid charges. And wouldn’t you know it, one of those dealers happened to be Eddie.
“You got a brother named Danny?” Eddie couldn’t help but ask.
“I used to,” Sam said.
“What do you mean, used to?”
“I haven’t talked to my brother in years,” Sam said. Eddie couldn’t tell if he lying or being sincere.
“Gotcha,” Eddie shook his head, pretending to believe him. “I know him from high school.”
“Lots of people do.”
“He was a nice guy,” Eddie said through gritted teeth. The kid was lucky Eddie didn’t carry a gun. He would’ve scared the daylights out of this punk.
Sam didn’t respond to his comment. He seemed to have genuinely forgotten about his brother. Or at least he wanted to forget.
The tires dragged through the snow, the icy conditions occasionally forcing the cab to slide from one side of the road to the other. Eddie had to keep a firm grip on the wheel at all times.
Sam was rigid, stiff. He barely moved a muscle. Quieter than a mouse, Eddie nearly forgot his presence until a voice told him to bear right.
Eddie turned the wheel gingerly but the tires still skidded across the icy pavement. Driving down Fairview Street, they passed a sign stating they were now leaving Greenville.
The next town over is Eden Harbor. An area Eddie was also familiar with. However, he wasn’t aware of any Paradise Avenue. He was starting to ponder if it even existed.
You idiot, Eddie thought. This kid could just be some junkie looking to rob you. He probably doesn’t even have the money he promised you.
“You sure we’re going the right way?” Eddie asked, trying to mask his anxiety. He was so tense his fingers were grinding against the steering wheel.
The windshield wipers worked at their maximum capacity, but the snow was falling fast and heavy. The heat was cranked as high as it could go, yet the cab was still freezing. The heater seemed to be blowing only cold air. Shivering, Eddie gave up on the heat and turned it off.
He took another peak in the rearview mirror. Nothing but a silent, motionless shadow in the backseat. He didn’t move, he didn’t shiver, he didn’t even appear to be breathing. It was like driving with an eerie mannequin crammed in the backseat.
Eddie felt uneasy for the first time in his miserable career. He turned on the radio to put his mind at rest. But his favorite rock station wouldn’t play.
All the radio picked up was static and undistinguishable noise. He switched stations, only to find that every channel was dead. The speaker’s hissed static with every switch of the dial until Eddie finally got fed up of trying.
“Looks like we’re in for a hell of a storm,” Eddie said. His nerves were squeezing the bland conversation out of him.
But no response came from the backseat. Eddie tapped on the glass partition, but all was quiet.
“You all right back there?” he asked, the cold leaving his breath like a cloud of smoke.
“We’re close,” was all Sam said.
When instructed, Eddie made a left onto Orange Street, heading toward the drawbridge that overlooks the bay.
They drove on in silence for ten minutes. One straight direction. Eddie was at his limit. He wanted nothing more than for this ride to be over. But this kid seemed intent on taking him on some wild goose chase.
What if there is no Paradise Avenue? What if this kid yanks out a knife as soon as you pull over? What if he’s got a gun?
“Who’s waiting for you at Paradise Avenue?” Eddie was trying to gather as much information as he could.
“My girlfriend, Nora.”
That’s when it hit Eddie like a slap to the face. Sam Shaw’s name was plastered in the local newspapers for a week straight. Back when Walter Hudson was still in office.
Hudson was a county executive, a very well-liked and respected individual. His only black cloud was his daughter Nora’s engagement to a drug addict named Shaw. When it came time for reelection, Hudson urged his daughter to break it off for the sake of his career and his family’s future.
Nora returned his engagement ring, told Sam it was off. She crushed his heart with a single blow, leaving Sam in a depressed, disoriented state. The fact that he had a brother as a steady drug supplier didn’t help matters either. She promised it was temporary, that they would see each other again.
Election Day came and went and Hudson got his second run in office. Sam waited day and night for that call. When it never came, Sam made calls of his own. He wrote letters, sent emails. Finally, Nora caved and agreed to meet him again.
Valentine’s Day. That was the day the lovebirds were set to reunite. But when Valentine’s Day came, Nora stood Sam up. After a night of heavy drinking and drug binging, Sam got behind the wheel of his pickup truck and…
“No,” Eddie said, his entire body quivering at the thought. “It’s not possible. You–” Eddie fell silent when he glanced in the rearview mirror. The dark silhouette had faded like a puff of smoke.
He turned back just to confirm what his mind couldn’t begin to process. The backseat was completely deserted.
All that was left was the cold air circulating around him. It surrounded Eddie, almost engulfing him. His chest was tight, his breath was thin. The air in his lungs had vacated. He could feel the icy grip around his neck. Some invisible force was choking the life out of him.
His grip started to loosen. Eddie lost the wheel and the taxi spun across the slick pavement. The side of the cab struck the safety rail and bounced off like a pinball.
Spinning out of control, Eddie struggled to grab hold of the wheel. The grip on his throat was tighter. He could feel the pressure against his windpipe. The lack of oxygen distorted him, it made his vision fuzzy. But he could see the cab was heading straight for the drawbridge, which was now raised.
Slamming the brakes in a panic, the car struck the safety rail again. This time it could not sustain the impact. The cab careened off the road, rolling down a steep embankment. It flipped seven times before it smacked the ground and came to a halt on its side.
Suddenly, he was free. Not from the cab, but from the grip of that invisible force. The air rushed back to his lungs. His vision returned. He breathed a sigh of relief, and couldn’t help but chuckle a little. It’s not every day you cheat death.
With his sight clear, he could confirm once again the backseat had been abandoned. It was as if Sam Shaw had evaporated through the seat. He vanished just as swiftly as the cold force that caused the accident had vacated.
He didn’t ask how or why. His brain didn’t want to know the answers. As far as he was concerned, the accident was nobody’s fault but his own. And he would never share the tale of Sam Shaw, for fear that they’d want to ship him off to the loony bin. No, this was not a story that you tell at dinner parties. And it’s certainly not something you list on an insurance claim.
Eddie spent four hours caught in the wreckage, constantly flashing his high beams in an attempt to draw someone’s attention. By the time the paramedics arrived, his fingertips had turned blue from the cold. Any longer and they would’ve had to amputate.
He spent two days in the hospital, and then took a trip to the auto shop to work out the final details with the claims adjuster the insurance company had shipped over.
“The damage is beyond repair,” the adjuster explained. “The insurance company will be cutting you a check. What did you say caused the accident?”
“It was the ice,” Eddie said, excluding any details about Sam Shaw.
“It’s not all bad. You got one hell of a tip out of the ordeal.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Someone left a hundred and twenty dollars in the backseat. We saved it for you.”
“Mind if I take a look back there?”
“Help yourself,” the adjuster shrugged.
Eddie managed to pry open the smashed up backdoor. In the backseat, a dull grey hoodie was rolled up and discarded on the floor. Eddie gasped as he ran his fingers across the upholstery and his hand brushed the unmistakable name that had been carved deeply into the seat: NORA.