A payphone rang in the middle of nowhere.
A lone silent sentinel hearkening back to a time long forgotten. The paint on the aluminum side panels had chipped and flaked so badly the ads were no longer visible. A frayed wire, acting as a scarred stub, hung limply where the phonebook had been maliciously ripped away–a grisly reminder of its lost state of perfection. The phone itself was a dented, scratched metal box with a receiver made of hardened black plastic—the kind that withstood the test of time.
It rang again and Jennifer approached with a curious unsureness, brushing blonde strands of windblown hair from her eyes. She had seen a payphone once when her dad took her to the Telephone Museum of New Mexico, but had never used one. It was like stepping into one of the old movies she loved so much. The stories of a simpler time that always reminded her of her father. She reached for the receiver as it rang a third time.
“What’re you doing,” asked Miranda from behind her. The lean, brunette irritably pulled her hair into a ponytail. “Stupid wind, right? I hate the desert.”
“I was going to answer it,” admitted Jen. “It’s…I don’t know. I mean when have you ever seen a payphone?”
The phone rang a fourth time. She wondered what happened if it rang a fifth time and nobody answered. The thought caused her to fidget anxiously.
“Whatever,” Mirada said with a roll of her eyes. “I’m going to the diner across the street. Maybe they have a salad that isn’t completely wilted or something.” She spun around and sauntered away, her cut-off shorts and red tank top getting looks from the grizzled townsfolk.
Jen hurriedly picked up the receiver an instant before that fifth and final ring, “Hello?”
“Hello? Somebody is really there,” replied a female voice in a hoarse whisper. “I can’t believe someone picked up. Listen, I’ve been kidnapped. My kidnappers took me somewhere in the desert, I think. One of them is disfigured. Burned or something. The other is a crazy old guy. Smells like whiskey and disappointment. I’m being tortured. Please help m—“ A door opened in the background followed by a dull thunk and a small splash. Then hideous, anguished shrieking. An instant later the line went dead. Jen hung up the phone, swallowing the bile that had risen in her throat.
Unable to process what she had just heard, she numbly shuffled to the diner and entered right in the middle of a tirade from what appeared to be the village idiot. She scuttled in like she had interrupted a sermon and took a seat at the booth Miranda occupied by the door.
“And that’s because time doesn’t exist. Reality isn’t linear. It’s looped. Loops upon loops upon loops. Forever like that!” The speaker was an unkempt man in his fifties, hair askew and eyes darting from person to person but never lingering on anyone. He wore a crumpled suit covered in dust and pockets overstuffed with notebook papers. “People can hop from one loop to another and go backwards. Or forwards! We have to figure out how to predict it! This can’t happen again!”
“Alright, Ed,” the sheriff, who had been sitting in the back booth drinking coffee and eating French fries, rose to his feet. He adjusted his belt and walked over with a lazy gait. “Not today. We actually got outta towners.” He tipped his hat at the two young women. “Here to see the lovely vortex, no doubt. Be sure to stop by the museum. Don’t mind Ed, here. He’s a bit loopy. It’s the heat. Gets to us some times.”
“They need to hear this too,” screeched Ed, spittle flying through the gaps of his clenched teeth. “It all starts here. Now. This can’t happen again!”
“I know, Ed. I know. Let’s go.” He took the distraught man by the arm and gently, but forcefully led him out the door.
“What a creepo,” Miranda said as she watched the cop usher Ed out of the diner. “So who was on the phone?” She turned to her friend and noticed the look on her face for the first time since Jen walked through the door. “Madre Dios, girl. Are you o.k? You look three shades paler than usual. And that’s a lot for you.”
“I hate you,” said Jen. She opened her mouth to explain what she had heard on the phone when the waitress strolled over to take their order.
She was old with wispy blonde hair and dressed in a plain dress and grease stained apron like she was playing a part. Her tan, weathered skin was cracked from years of living in the desert. “Don’t get many outta towners anymore. Since those girls went missing all those years ago. And when we finally get some tourists, Ed has to have one of his breakdowns! Don’t worry about him. He’s just, you know, sick. How ‘bout a free slice of pie and some coffee?”
“Is it gluten free,” asked Miranda. She had a knack for hiding her condescension behind a veil of sappy ignorance.
“Is it what?”
“Gluten free. Gluten allergies are a thing now, you know. People die from them.”
The waitress refused to dignify that with an answer. She turned to Jen. “How about you? You allergic too?”
“I’m fine,” Jen said dully. Then to Miranda, “Let’s go home. I’m not hungry.”
“Fine with me,” agreed Miranda and slid out of the booth. “I’d rather wait till we get back to the real world and get a frappucino anyway.”
“Just as well,” said the waitress. “Probably a good idea you leave and stay gone. Before the vortex sucks you in.” She smiled, an act more grimace than expression of joy. She got the coffee pot off the counter and went to check on the few locals who were having lunch.
The women got in to Miranda’s Prius and headed out of town, passing the sheriff escorting Ed to the station just up the block. They watched as the car passed and then Ed said something to the sheriff and he responded by hitting the older man square in the jaw.
“Oh.My.Gawd!” Miranda screeched and slammed the gas pedal to the floor.
“Just go! Just go!” Jen screamed.
“What a twisted town!” Miranda finally said after they pulled on the Interstate. Both of them kept darting furtive glances at the rear view mirror half expecting to see the lights of the sheriff’s cruiser flashing. “Oh man. We are never going back there.”
“No way. Literally not gonna happen,” Jen concurred. “Especially after what I heard on the phone.”
“Is that what was bothering you? I thought for sure it was that weirdo spouting all that loco crap. What’d you hear?”
“Someone asking for help. She said…she was like kidnapped or something. And getting tortured and stuff.”
“Really? Probably just some kids trolling.”
“They couldn’t. The number was faded out. No way they could call the payphone.”
“Who uses a payphone anymore? I thought they were extinct now.”
“It sounded so real,” Jen’s big, blue eyes welled up with tears.
“There’s no way it coulda been real. Trust me,” Miranda reassured her.
Jen tried to shake it off, but she couldn’t. Grief over the tragic death of her father was a monkey on her back and when it wasn’t flinging poo in her face it was wearing her down until she melted into a pool of uncontrollable emotions. Tears poured down her cheeks and she brushed them away irritably. “Yeah. You’re probably right,” said Jen and settled into a moody silence.
Miranda tried to leave it at that, but she always had a problem letting go of momentum. “What’d you expect, though? Drive all the way to Bumfuq, Nowhere to watch a ball roll up a hill instead of down it. Vortex? What a joke. The only thing weird about that place was the feeling I got being out in that desert to begin with. Like someone was watching me. Gave me the creeps.”
Jen ignored her and stared at the landscape whisking by. She watched the savage, unrelenting beauty of the desert slowly yield to the sloppy precision of urban sprawl as if she were going forward in time—on fast forward—thousands of years, countless lifetimes in the blink of an eye.
She fled blindly through the moonlit desert stumbling over rocks and shrubs and falling into cacti. Each time, she was up on her feet in a flash with a panicked glance over her shoulder. She couldn’t see her pursuer but she knew he had to be drawing closer. She continued her frenzied flight and let out a sob of relief when she saw the lights of the town in the distance. Not much farther and she would make it. She redoubled her pace and stumbled the last few feet into town. The old payphone to her left was bathed in the jaundiced glow of the town’s only street light.
Ahead and to her right was the diner, the darkened windows denying her the relief she’d hoped.
“Help,” she screamed to the sleeping town, “Help! He’s trying to kill me!”
She never heard the whizzing of the stone that connected with the back of her skull with a sickening crunch. She just remembered falling like Alice down the rabbit hole. And then she remembered nothing.
Jen checked with the police the next day and got nothing. Defeated, she called Miranda. “What’re you doing right now?”
“Just got out the gym. What’re you doing?”
“Just left the police station. On my way to Koala Juice for a destressing smoothie.”
“The police station? Everything bueno?”
“No. It’s not. I can’t explain it, Miranda. I can’t get over that phone call. Something about it. It was more than a prank. I know it. I need to go back to Lake Mack. I need to see that payphone again, I can’t explain it. But I have to. If you won’t go then I’ll go myself.”
There was a fine line between indulging grief and enabling it and Miranda wasn’t self-aware enough to notice the difference. “Forget that. Somebody’s gotta have your back or else you’ll end up in a horror movie.”
“Thank you,” Jen said with obvious relief. “For everything. I mean it. My dad always talked about that place and taking one of his day trips there. If not for me, we would’ve never gone in the first place.”
Miranda sighed in annoyance. “I love you girl but you gotta stop this downward spiral. You’re too young to be so old. Like an abuelita.”
Lake Mack was exactly how they’d left it the day before: a dusty, desert village with the most prominent building being the museum dedicated to the vortex that was the town’s claim to fame.
The girls drove past the museum this time, to the edge of town facing the vast expanse of the desert where the diner and payphone were located across the street from one another. As they pulled up, Miranda pointed to the payphone.
“Isn’t that the creep? Ted? Fred?”
“Ed!” Jennifer yelled.
At the sound of his name, the man’s head snapped up. His eyes widened at the sight of the girls running up to him. “No! Not again!” He hung up the payphone and bolted into the diner like he got caught shoplifting.
Jennifer ran after him yelling, “Was it her? Were you talking to her?”
Miranda checked the payphone. Ed’s smartphone rested on the ledge where the missing phonebook once lay. She put it in her back pocket and checked the phone out of morbid curiosity. Dial tone. She hung it up with a satisfied grunt and went to find her friend.
Jen threw open the door of the diner so hard it slammed against the outside wall. All eyes were instantly on her. The sheriff, sitting in the same booth and having the same meal of French fries and coffee, rose at the interruption and adjusted his belt.
“Is he here? Ed! Were you talking to her? Ed!” She started toward the kitchen where Ed was hiding behind the obese cook and the waitress stepped to intercept her.
“What’re you doing back here?” asked the old waitress, standing between Jennifer and the door to the kitchen with arms folded and feet square. “Thought you were allergic to our food. Thought one time in this dirty little town of ours was enough.”
“I need to see Ed,” Jen pleaded.
“None of your business. Ed! Just tell me! Was it her on the phone? Is she still alive?”
“Alright, that’s about enough of that,” said the sheriff and moved toward Jen, dangling handcuffs.
“You better be doing this by the book,” said Miranda entering with her phone up, recording the entire situation.”Cuz I’ll blow it up on YouTube tomorrow.”
“I wasn’t arresting her,” said the cop, “But she’s making a ruckus and needs to be calmed down. Same as Ed does some times.”
“So you were gonna take her outside and smash her in the face? We saw what you did to Ed last time.”
“No! Not at all. I wouldn’t hit her. Or any woman. Sometimes the vortex, well, it unhinges folks. Makes them nutty for a while. Ed, he’s been around longer’n most. I can tell when he’s about to have another one of his episodes. Easier for everybody if he sleeps it off.”
“So you’re calling my friend crazy?” Miranda wasn’t letting up or else she would lose the momentum.
“She isn’t crazy,” the waitress spoke up. “Just confused.”
“What do you mean?” Jen spoke for the first time since Miranda entered.
“I know what you’re here for, pumpkin. And I can tell you, Ed had nothing to do with it. He’s just a sick old man.”
“What are you talking about? Out with it!” Miranda stood beside Jen, camera rolling like an investigative journalist.
“My name is Jennifer. Jen. You… you answered my call yesterday. On the payphone.”
“That’s my name…”
“Imagine that,” the old waitress’s eyes held a sadness that spoke of secrets and mystery.
“The number is faded off the payphone. No way you could’ve called,” Miranda pressed. “You’re lying.”
“It wasn’t always. I’ve had it for a while. This old town gets lonely. I like to reach out sometimes. See if anyone is there. I’m sorry.”
“Why?” Jen wailed. She was teetering on the razor edge of an emotional breakdown. “You told me you had been kidnapped and tortured.”
“I don’t know why I told you all that,” she admitted. “I just opened my mouth and that’s what came out.”
“And no doubt that is what agitated Ed,” the sheriff added. “Shouldn’t be rattling off spooky nonsense like that with him around. You know what it does to ‘em.”
“Is that an official statement, officer? What’s your name? Sheriff Jennifer?” Miranda stepped toward the cop and he lowered his hands, putting his cuffs back on his belt.
“No. I’m Sheriff Dean. Now, looks like Mystery Inc. has solved the case of the kidnapped Jen. And we woulda gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids and your dog!”
The townsfolk chuckled and even Miranda smiled. Jen didn’t. She studied Jennifer the waitress and the old woman met her stare refusing to give any ground.
“You’re pathetic. All of you,” Jen said at last and stormed from the diner, Miranda trailing behind.
They were just getting in the car when the waitress ran out of the diner and grabbed Jen by the arm. “Listen to me and listen good. You girls were lucky. Do not come back here again. This is no place for you and it can’t happen again. You hear me?”
“Get your hands off me,” the young blonde demanded, pulling her arm away and hurrying into the car.
They sped away, everyone in the diner watching as they left town in a cloud of dust.
They drove most of the way home in silence. Jen was too shaken up to talk and Miranda was too pissed to form coherent sentences.
For Jen it was a traumatic experience—one that stirred emotions she had a hard time controlling. She already grieved over the tragic loss of her father. Feelings were real things and these days everybody had them but no one knew how to process them. The fragility of youth had been magnified so exponentially by parental over-coddling and ego-stroking that an entire generation of youths were glass cannons looking for a reason to be triggered. Jen was no exception.
“What a freakshow!”Miranda finally exploded. “I told you some of them crazy cabrones were playing games. But you had to take it serious! Pinche guera.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jen, “I thought…I don’t know what I thought.”
“Look. You have a big heart, I get it. That’s what I love about you. But I mean it, girl, you gotta stop letting people play on it. For real, Ed wasn’t even that hot.”
“I hate you,” Jen said with a smile and slapped Miranda. “Thanks for going with me. You know, to clear this up.”
“You’re my primo. I got your back. And creepy Ed’s phone,” she smiled wolfishly and produced the smartphone she’d found.
“No. You. Didn’t!” Jen screamed excitedly. “Where’d you find it?”
Miranda shrugged. “It was just lying there by the payphone.”
“And you didn’t give it back?”
Miranda shook her head emphatically. “They were jerk offs. Treating us like that. They deserve what they get. Even the retarded guy.”
“That’s not nice,” chided Jen.
“Neither is what he has on his screen saver.” Miranda held up the phone and a picture of the two of them at the payphone lit the screen.
Ed’s smartphone had over 1000 pictures. Most of them were of the vortex, its effects and the payphone with different people by it.
“What. A. Creep.” Miranda shivered with disgust as they sat in Jen’s apartment looking through the gallery. “He, like, watches everybody that goes to that phone. He’s totally obsessed.” As she talked she scrolled through photos, barely paying attention.
“Hold up,” said Jen and took the phone from Miranda. She scrolled back a few pictures. “Where is this?”
The photos were of a one room cabin, sparsely furnished with a sink, a toilet, a cot, a hotplate, a table and chair and a phone.
“Probably where he lives,” suggested Miranda. “Oh look. It looks like there is someone sleeping in the cot.”
Jen zoomed in and as Miranda said, someone appeared to be lying on the cot covered with a blanket. The next image in the gallery was a video clip; the freeze frame was from the pic before. Jen hit play with a trembling thumb.
Ed’s frantic whisper acted as a voice over. “You didn’t see. You can’t see. But you will. There’s no way not to. Come too far to go back. Like you ever had a choice. You never had a choice!”
His abrupt yell startled awake the sleeping person in the cot. They sprang awake in a flurry of blankets and scuttled to the corner, crouched low. Dirty, dingy hair covered a woman’s face. Only the dark glint of her eyes was visible.
“What do you want,” she demanded in a parched voice. “We didn’t do anything to you. Please. Just let us go.”
“I can’t let you go. If I do you’ll fall in the hole. I can’t have that again. We! Can’t have that again. If it happens again…It can’t. It can’t.” He shook his head violently.
“I don’t know what you’re saying! Make some sense you insane retard!”
“It’s on a loop, see? Sometimes you loop forward. Sometimes you loop back. Sometimes you’re young. Sometimes you’re old. Sometimes, even! You don’t exist at all. Maybe your mom had an abortion because here and now your dad was a junkie. And your mom was too. Maybe your parents died in a car crash before you were born. Maybe—“
“Stop it! You don’t know my parents. They were both teachers. My mom lives in Santa Fe still. My dad—he—he died. Violently.”
“Oh. My. GAWD!” Miranda screamed and yanked the phone from Jen’s hand, hurtling it across the room. She turned to Jen, pale and sweating, her eyes as big as saucers. “Girl, that’s…that’s you in that video.”
“No. It can’t be. That’s impossible. The other day when we went was my first time there. Ever. It’s some prank. Some cyberbully stalking. It has to be. There’s no way that is me.” She fished the phone from the corner and resumed the video.
“So I’m not the one you’re looking for,” the girl pleaded. “Just let me go. And my friend, too. Where is she?”
“Your friend…she’s…she’s not part of this. She doesn’t get! To be part of this.” The door behind him suddenly opened. “Oh you’re not gonna like this. He’s not a fan of yours. Not at all. Not even a little bit. Not after what you did to him.”
A dark shape moved in front of the camera heading for the girl in the corner. She screamed as the newcomer hoisted her over his shoulder. Her hair fell to the side and Jen’s cherub face, frozen with fear, stared at the camera. The clip ended.
“This can’t be real,” said Miranda and started pacing.
Jen passed out.
She awoke on the couch in her own place. Miranda sat across from her scrolling through Ed’s phone.
“Oh good. You’re awake. You aren’t gonna believe this. The pics after that video? They are of this dude. Burned, like, bad. Like, he doesn’t even look human. Check it.” She tossed the phone to Jen.
“I don’t wanna see.”
Jen reluctantly retrieved the phone and glanced at it. The face in the picture was burned beyond recognition. One eye was clouded over and his good eye blazed fiercely at the camera. “That’s horrible. We have to take this to the police. Let them try and deny this!”
She fully wanted to see these people suffer. She wanted them to experience the sinking dread—the loss of control—the unreality of the situation she found herself in. She didn’t deserve to be targeted. She had suffered enough already. The world was a crazy place and it had made her a victim of that insanity. She was a part of it. She lived within that false narrative that dictated the faux reality to the sleeping masses every single day.
“Girl, please. Nobody is going to believe this. They’ll say you hoaxed it and your ass will end up on CNN. Fake ass news. We gotta hit this head on.”
“We already got ‘em being creepy on camera. Threatening and stuff. We take the phone back, confront them, and get them to confess to being twisted freaks. Then we upload it to YouTube. Bam! Instant justice. Social media style.”
Jen’s horror had been replaced by a desire for vengeance. These sickos had singled her out for unknown reasons and it was the occlusion of motive that sat at the heart of the fear taking up residence inside her. To step out of the comfortable lie and into the forge of truth is a defining moment in a person’s life.
When outside forces jolt a person from the reverie of their complacent lives an interesting thing happens. A person is given a choice: to be destroyed by their suffering or to fight against it. To struggle—to fight–is to become a warrior. This requires a person to use their suffering to beat back the darkness threatening to consume them. It is the first step on the path to destiny and the hardest decision any person will ever face. Jen made her choice then and there.
“Let’s do it,” Jen said firmly. “I want them to pay for this.”
Jennifer the waitress and the obese cook Chuy sat at the diner’s counter smoking cigarettes and sharing a bottle of whiskey. It was late, past midnight, and they already closed down the diner for the night. All that was left was to turn off the lights and lock the door, but there was time for that. The locals knew the diner’s hours. No one would interrupt their after-hours ritual. One they had shared since Jennifer first walked out of the desert and started working there. The cook had been a fixture in the diner since its opening. He sometimes talked of his abuela and abuelo who had come over from Mexico and opened the diner to cash in on the tourist traffic to the vortex. Only there were rarely any tourists and the locals frequented the place enough to keep it running, but never to make it prosper.
Miranda and Jennifer barreled unexpectedly through the door and the waitress’s cigarette fell from numb lips.
“What’re you doing here? I told you never to come back! Why didn’t you listen?”
Jen, caught up in righteous indignation, ignored the outburst and shoved the phone in the waitress’s face. “What’s this about,” she demanded and pushed play.
“How did you get that? That’s never happened before.”
“What are you talking about? How did you get this video of me?”
“And why are you trying to ruin her life,” Miranda asked, stepping forward with her phone recording the waitress’s face. “Like, seriously bad skin,” she mumbled to herself. “Have to moisturize in the dry heat.”
The waitress stared wide-eyed from one accuser to the next, “This can’t happen again,” she stammered. There were no easy explanations. No ready answers to set their young minds at ease. The truth was no consolation. That’s the way it went. Time and time again. Once, a long time ago, she had pitied them but that pity had grown cold and settled into apathy.
“I’ve had enough of you putas,” said Chuy, sliding his substantial mass off the stool. He wobbled over to them like a tipsy penguin, his hands balled into fists. “Time to throw some chingasos.”
“Stay right there, lard ass!” Miranda yelled and moved her phone to record the approaching cook, “You can’t do anything or you’ll be in jail before—“
The cholo swung with a heavy right hook and sent Miranda careening into the counter. Her head bounced off the edge and she crumpled to the floor like a rag doll, a dark pool of crimson quickly spreading beneath her. Jen screamed and bolted for the door, running into Sheriff Dean as she did.
“Whoa, there. Easy. What’s going on here?”
“That monster hit Miranda for no reason!”
The cop looked at the cook. “That true?”
Chuy shrugged and leaned down to get Miranda’s phone. “Nah, she slipped,” he said and smashed the device to pieces.
“He’s lying! I have it right here on my phone.” She looked down to find the video and a thousand volts of electricity overloaded her body. She twitched, pissed herself and collapsed unconscious next to her friend.
“That’s never fun,” said Sheriff Dean sadly as he removed the taser darts. “Best get her to the shack. Have to go with plan B.”
“I don’t wanna do this again. I can’t,” confessed the waitress as she helped Chuy gather up Miranda.
“No choice,” grunted the Sheriff as he slung Jen over his shoulder and headed for the door. “Maybe this time we get lucky.”
Voices muffled, filtered through a thick fog of pain and disorientation. Pain. Oh God, the pain. It was everywhere. She tried to move but her body refused so she focused on the voices instead. After a moment they came through.
“That’s the problem with loops see? They start leaking into one another the more you slip through. You’re carrying little bits of everywhere you’ve already been with you. That’s why this! Has got to stop. We keep going and eventually everything will bleed into everything else and blink! Everything is gone.” The voice was high and whiny, erratic. Must belong to Ed the crazy.
“That’d be a nice change, actually.”
“Ha! And you call me the crazy one.”
“You are the crazy one. I’m the one that got here before you broke looking for whatever it is you were looking for in that desert.” This voice was also high and whiny but didn’t have the edge to it that Ed’s did. The sheriff, then.
“Yes and I found it. The vortex is just a leak, see? A geyser. The real action is in the hole. Behind the shack. That’s where the magic! Happens. Unless it blows up in our faces.”
“We’ll fix it this time. We’ve come across all possible variables by now. After the phone disaster, that is. Why were you recording stuff with that freak anyway?”
“Hey be nice. That freak is you.”
“No, that freak is you. After you broke for good. And believe me, after the things I saw him do, ya’ll deserved everything you got.”
Vision returned dimly. By degrees, like waking up slowly. Finally her eyes opened. Bright lights, white cinder block walls that dispelled any shadows. She must be in a cell. Probably at the Sheriff’s station. The sounds of the voices became jack hammers in her brain. She tried to speak, to tell them to shut up and give her some water but all she managed was a hollow moan.
“I’ll take care of sleeping beauty. Go check on the other one. And make sure she doesn’t break that god forsaken oil lamp over your head this time. Go on now.”
Her vision was clearer, but still fuzzy. She was able to move again though her arms and legs felt like lead weights. She watched Ed leave through the front door of the Sheriff’s office and tried to sit up as Sheriff Dean approached the cell.
“Chuy clocked you good. Didn’t expect you to wake up.”
“You can’t…do this,” rasped Miranda. She tried to stand, but her legs gave out beneath her. The sheriff opened the cell, stepped inside and handed Miranda a tin cup full of water. She drank greedily.
“You know, I’m not the bad guy here. I’m a victim too. We’re on the same team really.”
“Don’t talk to me right now,” moaned Miranda, “My head hurts and all you are saying is bullcrap.”
“No it’s true. Honest. Do you know what the First Cause is? Or was, or whatever?”
“Say what?” Miranda couldn’t tell if her head injury was making her confused or if the sheriff really was talking nonsense.
“First Cause. It’s what got this whole thing started. You and Jen came to see the vortex. Stopped at the museum. Had a great time. Well, Ed, he saw you two in town and he got a hard on for Jen. It was a particularly slow day and no outta towners were here ‘cept you ladies. Well by that point, the proximity to the vortex had already scrambled his brain so he was prone to outrageous notions. So he followed you out to the site. He clubs you with a rock and goes after Jen. She runs like a scared rabbit and ends up falling down the mineshaft by Ed’s shack. Idiot fell right in behind her. I crawled out of the desert sometime later. And here we are. That’s why you don’t get to be a part of this. You were already dead.” He pulled his gun and pointed it at her head.
Miranda was born a fighter. Adrenaline seized her and she instinctively kicked out from where she was sitting, hitting the sheriff square in the balls. He coughed and fired, the shot went wild, buzzing by Miranda’s head and bombarding her ears with a dull ringing. She fought through the disorientation and kicked the man again while he was doubled over. He fell to the floor and tried to raise his gun for another shot. Miranda slapped the gun out of his hand and punched him in the throat. He clutched at his collar, desperate for air and Miranda retrieved the gun. She pulled the trigger without mercy and closed her eyes moments before she was splattered with gore. Then she stumbled out of the sheriff’s office and up the street toward the diner.
She didn’t know exactly how long she’d been in the shack. Hours. Days. Weeks. Time didn’t seem right in that place. It was disjointed–off kilter and distorted to surreal proportions. She marked the passage of time by the appearance of her captors: the crazy Ed and his mutilated accomplish who, she discovered, lived in the old mine. The things they did to her she had to force out of her mind or risk losing her sanity altogether. But she fought. She kept her wits about her and molded her suffering into tools like a true warrior would. She tried using the phone every day, but every day the phone told her the same thing:
“We’re sorry. Your call cannot be completed as dialed.”
She tried the door, the boarded up windows, breaking through the floor, but nothing worked. She had almost given up hope and resigned herself to finding ways to commit suicide when the generator quit working. After that Ed brought her an oil lamp to use. She started collecting the oil in the tin cup she had, drinking water straight from the sink. She saved her matches too and told Ed she’d flushed them after she used them. He didn’t call her out, but Jen thought he knew something was up. He never approached Jen, especially if she was near the oil lamp and he always made her go to the other side of the room before he’d refill it.
When she filled the cup almost to the brim, she laid her trap. She carefully balanced the cup on the lip of the frame above the door. When Ed or the freak came through the door they would be doused with lamp oil and she would light them up with one of her matches. Then she would run for the town and hopefully find Miranda.
She crouched by the door and waited to strike. While waiting, her eye caught something scratched into the wood panel behind the sink. She crawled over to it and could barely make out numbers scratched into the wood.
A phone number! Maybe one that would work in this nightmare place. Her heart leapt in her chest and she rushed over to the rotary phone and dialed the number tapping her feet impatiently with each spin of the dial. Finally, the last number clicked and the call went through. It started ringing almost immediately. Jen choked back a sob and prayed whoever was on the other end would answer and be someone willing to help her.
Miranda limped up the short stairs to the diner, covered in blood and clutching the sheriff’s handgun.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” yelled the waitress who was in the middle of mopping up the pool of blood on the floor.
Chuy growled and stepped toward Miranda. The feisty woman didn’t hesitate to raise the gun and put three shots in the obese vato’s chest. He stumbled backwards into the counter and slid down, dead before he hit the ground. She turned the gun on the waitress.
“Take me to my friend. Or I’ll kill you here.”
“Right. Sure. No problem.” The old waitress stubbed out her cigarette and led Miranda out the door and into the desert.
As they passed the payphone it rang loud and lonely in the desert night.
“Leave it,” Miranda insisted and shoved the waitress ahead.
Jen only had a brief moment to relay the message to the woman on the other end before the door opened and Ed was doused with lamp oil. Jen dropped the phone and rushed over to where he was screaming and trying to rub oil out of his eyes. She reached into her pocket for a match, dropped most of them and managed to come away with one. She struck it on the rough wooden wall and tossed it on Ed. He went up in flames immediately. His pockets full of papers only added to the intensity of the immolation. He fell, screaming, kicking and rolling around. Jen leapt over him and rushed out the door. She couldn’t be certain that mangled freak wasn’t lurking around, waiting to finish her off once and for all. She stumbled and fell, landing in a cactus. Choking back a sob, she rose to her feet, picking thorns out of her hands and arms and looked back at the shack which erupted into flame like the shoddy, cheap tinderbox it was. A darker shadow within the shadows cast by the fire broke away.
“Jennifer!” The bellow was barely human. Half bull bleat and half childish whine. “What did you do, Jennifer?”
Jen tried to stay still but the fear got the best of her and she fled. The freak saw her and gave chase.
“Stop Jennifer! This can’t happen again! I forgive you!”
She ignored him and kept running. This was her last chance for survival. Ed was right when he said the freak wasn’t Jen’s biggest fan. That mangled beast brutalized Jen in ways that would forever haunt her nightmares and eventually leak over into intimacy issues. And through it all he yelled at her. Incessantly.
“I didn’t deserve this! I wanted to love you!” And so on and so forth. Like a broken record. It baffled her as much as it angered her.
She was the one being tortured, not him. She was the one being held captive against her will. It wasn’t her fault she had to burn Ed like she did. She was fighting for her life after all. And then it hit her like a bolt. She burned Ed. The freak was burned. The freak was Ed. But how? Was the vortex responsible in some way? She wished her dad were around to ask. He would know what to tell her. He would take her into his arms and swallow her in a hug the way he used to whenever she woke from a bad dream. But he was dead and there was no changing that. What’s done is done. Whatever will be, will be. As this thought crossed her mind, she fell into the hole and was instead swallowed by the embrace of pitch black nothingness.
“What are we doing here,” Miranda asked as they approached the tourist site of the Lake Mack Vortex.
“This is where she is. Where I came from.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Look. We, or I, was never good at science. My dad was. I don’t know how to explain this to you other than to say that’s where your friend is.” She pointed to the spot marked by the twisted mesquite bushes and cacti.
Miranda looked at the waitress suspiciously. “Jen?” she called out. “You out there, girl?” Something rustled in the bushes nearby and she went over to check it out, careful to keep the gun pointed at the waitress. “It’s just some rodent or something,” she said and turned to face the waitress who slammed a rock into her head as she did so.
Miranda had already suffered major head trauma. She wouldn’t survive any more. Her vision immediately went dim and her knees buckled.
“You don’t get to be a part of this!” the old woman screeched.
Miranda whipped the gun up and fired just as the second blow from the rock caved her skull in. She never knew it but her shot tore through Jennifer the waitress’s weathered face and sent the crone careening into death with her.
Up was down. Down was left. Right was back. Forward was blue. Dark was sight. Light was blindness. She thought the fall into the mine shaft would certainly kill her. But if she ever hit bottom she wasn’t aware of it. She could move just fine, so nothing was broken, but moving didn’t get her anywhere. And when she stood still she found herself running through the halls of her high school. The same high school her parents taught at. The same high school where her dad and thirteen other teachers and students died that day. She ran through empty, hazy halls right to her dad’s class room. She threw open the door and saw him kneeling with those two murderous pricks holding rifles to his head. Jennifer yelled for him and ran over, throwing her arms around him. She passed right through him, tumbled through the floor and came down from the ceiling, floating like a leaf into his vision.
He looked directly at her and his eyes lit up. “My angel,” he said, his voice quivering. He told her everything he never had a chance to say in that gaze. His eyes apologized for all the life he would miss with her. His tears promised her that he loved her and would carry that love to whatever destination came next.
Then the classroom doors burst open and SWAT flooded in, firing like it was a war zone. The shooters and her father all jerked like epileptic puppets as they were peppered with bullets. The boys never even got a shot off.
She screamed but heard nothing. She looked but saw nothing. In the distance a pin prick of light pierced the perfect black canvas. Jennifer hooted with joy and ran for it only to find it farther away. So she stood still and it rushed to meet her. The light grew into a window in the void. Through it she could see dawn breaking on the desert. After what felt like an eternity in the black abyss of the hole, the sunlight bursting over the mountains in the distance took her breath away. She stumbled through the open portal, weeping as she crossed the threshold back into reality.
Jennifer emerged from the vortex going down the hill and didn’t stop running until she reached town. As she passed the payphone it rang. She ignored it and rushed right up to Chuy who was standing outside the diner smoking a cigarette.
“One time, my abuelo and abuela walked into the desert. They never came back. The vortex swallowed them up. Drank the lake too, that’s what the Natives say. And now you come out the desert. First this time. Bueno. I like the times you come out first the best. Maybe this time, we get lucky and no one is around to answer the phone. You wanna smoke?”
“I don’t smoke,” Jen said, mildly stunned that he was acting so nonchalant toward her considering what had happened with him the night before. “Where’s Miranda?”
“She doesn’t get to be a part of this,” Chuy said. “Bout time to open.”
Jennifer glanced at the diner door and the morning sun caught her reflection perfectly in the glass. At the sight of her reflection she shattered the predawn silence with a horrified wail. Her lithe, young body, her gorgeous hair and smooth skin was gone and replaced with the withered, sun-leathered body of the waitress Jennifer. “What happened to me?” Jen barely heard herself speak as the world swam around her threatening to topple her into unconsciousness.
“The vortex. It’ll do that to you some times. To teach you respect, no? Now come on. You know the ranchers like to get here early. Pinche pindejos.” He shuffled up the three steps to the diner’s door and opened it. “Coming?”
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. She never expected to lose when she stood against the big, unfair machine that runs the universe because that’s not how she was taught the world works. You try your hardest. Do your best. And in the end you get rewarded for that. But reality and the comfortable lie are two different things. She understood then that there were no cosmic rewards for good behavior and all the consolation prizes sucked. Broken, she followed Chuy up the stairs, taking a cigarette from him to calm her shaking nerves.
But defeated as she was, she couldn’t give up hope. Fighters never stop fighting. There was a way to fix it. There HAD to be a way to stop it. It couldn’t happen again. It wouldn’t happen again. Not this time. This time would be different.
Later that day, a payphone rang in the middle of nowhere.