Friday, August 24, 2007

Traveling in Armageddon Pt 2

As they began to pull away from the train station, Michael wondered at the state to which they’d been reduced. Receiving hazard pay to drive into New York City—it was like the punch line to some sick joke.

Turning to the window, he watched the people still departing from the train. Now that the cabs were full, some of the passengers were making their ways toward waiting cars and some were beginning to walk toward the ramshackle hotel near the tracks. Michael’s cab was nearly out of the station parking lot when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. The young woman who had sat across from him with her baby was standing helplessly on the sidewalk. She didn’t look as if she were aware of where she was or what she was going to do now.

“Could you stop the cab?” Michael asked the driver.

The boy looked at him quizzically. “What for dude? You want to get the other cabbies pissed or something? Once you’re heading out they don’t like it when you stop.”

“I don’t care what the other drivers like or don’t like. Stop the cab.” Michael told the driver bluntly.

Shaking his head emphatically, the boy replied. “No way, dude. They’ll give me hell when I come back through later.”

“Stop the cab,” he roared. The cabbie slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a halt.

“Whoa, shit. Don’t do that!” the boy shouted. Turning slightly in his seat to face his passenger, he said, “What’s you’re major maladjustment, dude?”

“We need to pick up that young lady and her baby,” Michael said coolly.

“Oh, man.” The kid rolled his eyes. “That means I gotta back up and they really ain’t gonna like that. Do I have to?”

“Yes.” Something in the tone of Michael’s voice told the young man that he was not going to win this battle.

Huffing angrily the boy shifted his car into reverse and winced at the resulting chorus of car horns. “This is gonna cost extra, ya know.” Michael dug some more bills out of his wallet and when the cab came to a stop in front of the little family of two, he stuffed the money into the kid’s outstretched hand. As Michael was about to put his wallet away, the boy added, “Umm, dude? According to the new rules, you gotta pay for her, too. No cab sharin’.”

Michael glowered at the kid’s reflection in the rearview mirror and the boy’s head seemed to shrink down into his shoulders. “Tell ya what, dude. I’m feelin’ gen’rus. I won’t make ya pay for the kid… unless it starts cryin’ or sumthin’. I can’t handle cryin’ babies, dude.”

“Fine.” He assented as he handed the driver another fifty. Opening the door to the cab, Michael spoke to the young woman. “Excuse me, miss? I’d like you to share my cab into the city.” She immediately stopped staring off into space and turned to stare at Michael. “Miss?” He said softly. “Would you like a ride into the city?”

It was as if she were in a fog, looking at him but not seeing him, until the driver behind them honked long and loud startling her and shaking her back into reality. “I… I didn’t know the train would stop here.” She began without preface. “My mother is waiting in New York… The cabs are all gone. Not that I have enough money for a cab anyway… Thank you, sir, but… but… I don’t have enough money for a cab.” She stopped helplessly and resumed staring into space.

“It’s okay, miss. I’ve got it covered. Climb on in.” Then noticing the sudden look of distrust in her eyes he added, “I don’t want anything from you but a bit of conversation during the ride. Really.”

At that her face relaxed slightly, and she appeared as if she were going to accept, but the suspicion remained in her eyes. Finally she made her decision and said, “I guess that would be all right. Thank you.” She gathered her bags and with Michael’s help climbed into the cab.

A short while after they had resumed their journey, the girl spoke. “I really do appreciate this, sir. I didn’t want to accept your ride because I don’t have any way to repay you, but then I realized that I don’t have any other way to get into New York, so it was the only choice.”

“As I said, you’ll repay me by talking with me. It could take some time for us to get into the city.” Michael reassured her.

“Well, if you’re sure…” the girl began hesitantly, “…and the other reason is that I don’t know if I can trust you.” She spoke as if she were afraid that by saying this she would offend him in some way. “I’m probably being silly.”

“I understand. It would be sillier for you to feel that you could trust a complete stranger.” He said, and then jokingly added, “I probably wouldn’t trust me either if I were in your boat.”

The girl smiled shyly. Quickly she added, “But you look okay, and, like I said, I don’t have much of a choice…”

“If I look okay, I must be okay? You have to watch thinking like that. Some of the worst serial killers looked like average guys.” Michael warned, and as the girl’s eyes regained a measure of her earlier distrust, he continued, “But in this case, you thought right. I’m harmless, and if you’re still worried about me after a few more miles, I’ll pay the driver to take you back to the station.” At that statement, the driver groaned and Michael firmly added. “Whether he likes it or not.”

Relaxing considerably, the girl settled into her seat and turned her attention toward the child she had settled into her lap. After fussing nervously with the baby’s blanket and then its bottle, she spoke, “Listen, you said you would accept conversation as payment. I don’t know what I could say that would be interesting enough to repay you. You look like some sort of professor or something. I was never very good at talking with my professors.”

Michael looked at the young woman gently and smiled. “That’s okay. We’re even. I was never very good at making conversation with my students. However, I haven’t taught professionally in years, and you’re not one of my students, so we should be fine.”

She smiled, too. “Okay then. My name’s Marisa and this little person is Tyler.” She held her infant son up so that he could see Michael. The boy smiled and cooed at him.

Michael smiled back. “He’s a handsome little guy. He’ll be a lady-killer when he grows up.” Without warning, Marisa broke out sobbing. Stymied, Michael sat in silence for several moments. He patted her hand clumsily. He had never been good at dealing with people this way, and couldn’t think of what to say to comfort this young woman. “I’m sorry, Marisa. I know this is a hard time for you.”

She looked up and saw the confusion on his face. “Wha… Wha… What you said.” She stuttered. “About… Tyler whe… when he… he grows… He’ll never grow up! The comet… the comet is coming and… we… We… we’re going to New York… so we can… so we can… die… Die with… our family!” With a forlorn cry, she clutched the little boy to her chest and rocked in her seat. Michael was stunned into silence. When he looked up at the cabbie, the young man turned away embarrassed.

Struggling for the right way to approach this subject, the subject that so many had turned away from in the past few weeks, he started to comfort her, “I know this is hard to understand, miss, but it’ll be okay. Everything will be just fine…”

“No… it won’t…” She hiccoughed. “It’s over and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. That’s all they keep saying on the news. The scientists can’t do anything, and the government can’t do anything, and we’re all going to die. Nothing can save any of us now.” Marisa sniffled, and her son buried his face in her neck as if to say that he had as little hope as she.

“Miss. I promise you that everything will be fine. I am certain of it…”

Something in his voice drew her attention and Marisa looked up at him disbelievingly, her eyelashes spiky and her cheeks stained with the salt of her tears. For an instant, those eyes held a glimmer of hope before they darkened with her thoughts. “Now listen here. I’ve heard this line of bull before and if you’re going to start… telling me that God will save us all… you can… stop the cab… and let me out. I… I’ll walk to New York before I listen to any more of that crap.”

Thinking that he was about to be relieved of the emotional tension in his cab, the driver started to slow down and Marisa grabbed her things in readiness for departure. Michael laid a firm hand on her arm and said calmly, “I don’t think that will be necessary. I don’t have any such intention.” He locked eyes with the cabbie in the rearview mirror. “Continue on, son. We’ve paid for a ride to New York and we’re going to get one.”

Once the cab had sped up and continued on its way, Michael turned toward his companion. “Now, Marisa, I tell you what. You tell me a bit about yourself and I’ll tell you a bit about myself and then after you know me a little, I’ll explain what I meant when I told you that everything would be okay.”

Marisa looked at him resentfully. “I don’t know. I’ve had about enough of your type lately.”

“Okay, I’ll make a deal with you,” he said firmly. “If I mention any type of deity, you are welcome to kick me out of this cab and take it the rest of the way into the city on my dime.” As she considered his offer, Michael took the time to look over his companion. She was a plain girl of moderate means, but his original estimate that she was very young was off base somewhere. Although when she looked scared and confused, there was definitely a child-like quality about her, now that she was angry and ready to stand her ground she took on a more mature appearance. There seemed to be a fire in her that wouldn’t be easily doused, even if it seemed to die down from time to time. The thought of that grit in her made Michael more hopeful that, once she had listened to him and looked at the data, she would understand what it all meant and that she would carry it with her to New York; that she would hold onto it and not give in to the hopelessness that was overtaking her now.

“Don’t think I won’t hold you to that,” she said decisively.

“I hope you will,” he replied, happily thinking, “Good. We need more people like her around.”

She eyed him uncertainly. “Well, what do you want to know?”

Michael shrugged. It didn’t really matter where she started or what she ended up telling him. This was more an exercise in building trust through mutual knowledge than anything else. “Where you’re from, what you do, anything… Just nothing about the comet right now. We can talk about that later.”

She nodded her agreement; she didn’t want to talk about the comet any more than he did. Hesitantly, she began. “Um… okay. I’m twenty-six years old. I’m originally from Manhattan, but after I graduated from NYU, I got this awesome job down in Charlotte and I’ve been working there for about four years.”

“What is it that you do in Charlotte?” he asked.

Proudly, she replied, “I’m the executive assistant for the VP of Ops of a large manufacturer of plastics.” Michael nodded and she continued. “My folks… well, just my mother now I guess… my dad had a heart attack after the… sorry, we aren’t talking about that… well, my mom has lived in New York since just before I was born. They used to live somewhere further west, but my dad got a job in one of the brokerage houses and they picked up everything and just moved.” She grinned, “Sort of like I did when I went to Charlotte. Like father, like daughter, I guess.” Her voice trailed away. Michael waited patiently for her to resume, but her eyes were looking at some point in the distance. When she turned to look at him again, he could see that she was near to tears again.

“Sorry,” she said. “I guess I kinda miss him. Were you close to your dad?”

“I still am. Both of my parents are retired and living in Wyoming.”

Wistfully she mused, “I bet it’s pretty out there. I’ve seen pictures and documentaries about the west, and I’ve always wanted to go there. In fact, I was planning a trip to Yellowstone the summer before I found out I was expecting Tyler, but things sorta… well things got put on hold.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, will Tyler’s father be joining you in New York?”

She smiled wryly, “Him? I think the only thing he’ll be joining is a barmaid for a few drinks after she gets off her shift. Last I knew of him he was sitting in a bar looking for his happiness at the bottom of a bottle of vodka.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me… when he walked away from us, I mean. But I don’t want to talk about that any more. It’s water under the bridge. Tell me about you now.”

“My turn?” He asked and she nodded. “Well, my name is Michael.”

She held out her hand and shook his heartily. “Pleased to meet you, Michael.”

“The pleasure is mine, Marisa,” he replied. “Now, let’s see. I’m thirty-eight and I work in New Mexico… but if you don’t mind I’d like to leave my employment there for right now. As I said, my folks live in Wyoming on the farm they bought after my father retired. Dad raises elk now. I grew up in northern Utah…”

“See?” Marisa interrupted, “I knew it!” She crossed her arms over her chest above the sleeping Tyler and stated, “You can stop right there, mister.”

Confused, Michael fell silent, uttering only one word, “Why?”

“Because you’re like some kind of Mormon or something,” she insisted, “and I knew you were going to start with the whole god-thing sooner or later.” To her surprise, Michael burst into helpless laughter. She grew more furious with every chuckle. “I don’t really see what’s so funny.”

Sputtering out a few more healthy guffaws, Michael took a deep breath and explained, “Because it’s been a long time since anyone made that assumption. I used to get that a lot when I was younger, especially when I started college, but it tapered off eventually. To settle your mind some, I’m not mormon. I’m not anything as a matter of fact, but that is neither here nor there. Remember our deal, Marisa. If I mention religion you can kick me out of the taxi. I wouldn’t have agreed to that if I thought it were a possibility. Trust me, I don’t relish the idea of walking to New York.”

Abashed, Marisa apologized. “Sorry. It’s just that I’m so used to being blindsided by stuff like that. I guess that it’s made me kinda jumpy.”

“Apology accepted. So, now that we’re settled on that you can relax a bit and we can talk without your having to read between the lines and wonder what I might be saying that I’m not really saying. Now, where was I?” He pondered.

“You grew up in Utah.” She offered.

Michael laughed. “Ah, yes. How could I have forgotten that point? The reason we lived in Utah was that my father was employed by a company that makes jet-propulsion systems and when they opened a lab facility up there, my father was the obvious choice to head the division. My family is originally from the Midwest. In fact, I was born in Columbus, Ohio.” Raising one eyebrow, Michael looked at Marisa. “You don’t have a problem with former buckeyes, do you?”

She giggled. “Only if a buckeye is some kind of cult fanatic.”

“Actually a buckeye is a kind of nut, but not the religious kind.” He explained. Marissa was now completely relaxed and bright-eyed, and Michael reflected on the contrast between her and the young receptionist at the Global Science Institute. Where Marisa had originally seemed very plain and mousy, she now appeared quite lovely.

“Tell me more,” she requested.

“Well…” he searched his mind for some other piece of information that the girl might find interesting, “…my mother is a romance novelist.”

He had chosen well judging from the way Marisa perked up. “Really?” she asked cheerfully. “I hate to admit it but I read tons of those things. Maybe I’ve read some of her stuff. What’s her name?”

“She writes under the name Madeline Brook.”

A wide smile broke over the girl’s face. “That’s your mother? I love her stuff. It’s very real, but also so very romantic.” Marisa sighed. “I’ve always been a sucker for the kinds of men she makes up for her books.”

Michael grinned, thinking that his mother had once told him that all her heroes were based on his father. “I’ll pass that along to her. Mom loves to hear that people enjoy reading her books as much as she enjoys writing them. By the way, her real name is Marjorie. You may have noticed that she hasn’t written much lately, but that’s because she is enjoying puttering in her garden now that Dad is retired and only writes when the mood strikes her.”

“Thank you, Michael. I’ll remember that. So, now that I know all about what your folks are doing, tell me what you do for a living.”

“I’m an astrophysicist.”

She giggled. “No. Seriously. What do you do?”

“That is what I do. Seriously.”

“Oh,” she said with a strange look in her eyes, less distrust than a sort of gentle sadness on behalf of her newfound friend. “Well, I can certainly understand why you didn’t want to talk about the comet. You guys haven’t been much help lately, have you?”

“My field hasn’t been any help at all lately. That’s why I’m headed for New York—to try and put things right. It’s also why I stopped to help you today. You looked so lost and afraid and you shouldn’t have to be.”

Her lips curled into a wistful smile. “It’s okay now. You helped me a lot. You see… I’m going to New York to die and I was afraid that my resolve would fail me. But you’re going to get me there and I can do what I have to do now.”

“You don’t have to do anything.”

“Oh, I know that. Come July, it’ll hit and we’ll all be dead, so I could just wait until then and take what’s coming, but I don’t want Tyler to suffer in the end, so my mother and I came up with this plan and now I’m seeing it through. It’ll be better this way… to die quietly in my old bed with Tyler in my arms.” Marisa looked almost serene, but Michael was reeling. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that this intelligent, vibrant young woman was going to kill herself, but it was true. How many others, like her, were ending their lives before the horror could overcome them? That the horror would never come made it doubly hard to bear.

“Marisa,” his voice had gained the hard edge of barely reined anger, “I know that you think this is the only way, but you cannot kill yourself when you get to New York. I know you don’t know me and have no reason to trust me, but this isn’t necessary. When you get to New York, I want you to take your mother and leave the city. Go somewhere away from people and wait it out. Please.”

Her mouth tightened and she shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, but I can’t bear the thought of slowly dying inside over the next few months just waiting to be vaporized. I can’t do that. I’ve never sat around waiting for anything to happen, and I don’t want to start with this… not with the end of my life. Oh sure, I could spend the next two months partying it up somewhere like Tyler’s father and like some of my friends, but I couldn’t do that either. I’m not that kind of person. Nope, this is the best way.”

“Marisa? What if I told you that the comet will not hurt you or any of us? What if I showed you the proof of it and asked, not that you trust me, but that you trust reality?”

She looked at him disbelievingly. “If that’s true, why doesn’t anyone else know?”

“I don’t have the answer to that. I wish I did. I have been telling everyone who would take a moment to listen.” Michael shook his head at those memories. “I’m headed to New York for an appointment with NBS. I’m hoping that they will listen to me, and that they will help me to tell the public the truth.”

Marisa’s eyes had grown wide. “I don’t believe you. No one would hide this kind of information from people. There’s no reason to do something like that. No one can be that cruel.”

“I don’t know if they’re doing this deliberately to be cruel or if that’s just a by-product, but the fact is that they are doing it. I have the proof…”

“I don’t know why you’re doing this,” she cried. “I don’t know if you’re sadistic, or insane, or just mean. I don’t care. This is wrong of you.” She was looking at him with a wild-eyed horror that slowly changed to disappointment. Michael waited patiently until slowly a sad sort of pity crept into her eyes and she very gently told him, “You have to stop telling people this. Why get people’s hopes up that way? We only have a few months, but we shouldn’t go around with our head in the clouds over nothing. I’m sure that if your proof were correct, someone would have listened and let everyone know. I don’t get it.” Shaking her head, she inquired, “Why would they hide something like that from us? Why?”

“I don’t know why, but what I’m telling you is the truth. Look, I’m not asking you to just believe me. That is exactly what they are asking you to do. I’m not basing this on conjecture, but they are. I ran tests—every test I could think of and then some—to check and re-check every single conclusion I came up with. They didn’t bother with tests; they didn’t bother to check anything. Someone said, ‘We’re doomed,’ and someone else said, ‘They must be right because they’re the ones who are supposed to know.’ And no one bothered to ask them why they thought we were doomed. I didn’t listen to their words. I looked at the data and the data proved them wrong. Maybe they’re afraid to be wrong. Maybe they are afraid to be alive at all. I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to live. Do you want to live, Marisa?”

“Of course I do. Doesn’t everyone?”

“I’m beginning to have serious doubts about that.”

Michael heard a strange cough from the front seat. He looked into the eyes in the mirror and noticed that their driver’s cheeks were damp. “It’ll be okay, kid.”

The cabbie looked at him and Michael saw the face of a frightened child. “You serious, Mister?”

“If you’ll pardon the phrase… I’m deadly serious.”

The kid smiled. He looked like he’d just been released from prison—an innocent man given a pardon on his death sentence. “I believe you, Mister.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, kid, but I’d rather you believe the data. Unfortunately, you can’t read and drive at the same time.” The cabbie winked and turned his concentration back to the road. Marisa still looked wary, but she seemed open to the possibility that Michael may have the answers she’d been hoping for. “Maybe since you can’t read and drive, I could read the data to you both while we travel. I want you to understand it so that you can be certain of it for yourself. If you’re certain, you can help to pass the information along to your fares. Just in case.”

The kid shook his head and exclaimed, “Dude, you’re my last fare… ever! I’m beatin’ feet out of the city as soon as I drop you off. Hey, I’ll even give ya yur money back. You already paid me more than this drive is worth. We’re gonna live, Dude!”

“Keep the money. You’ll need it over the next few months.” Michael winked at the boy and he winked back. “Shall I begin?”

Both of his companions nodded silently and listened carefully as he laid out the information they would need to make their own decisions.

Stay tuned for Part 3...

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