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       John Gone, p.10

           Michael Kayatta

  June 3rd, 1972:

  The car ride had been long and without break. Felix sat crookedly, too tall for the back seat. His head cocked awkwardly to the left as it pushed against the torn, brown fabric of the car’s ceiling. Each bump in the road made his neck feel worse, and there were a lot of bumps on this long, blind ride.

  We must be out West now, he thought. The roads can only be this bad out West.

  “Is this truly necessary?” Felix asked abruptly. He knew that whining wouldn’t take him anywhere of relevance, but he was bored and it was the sort of thing he thought people typically asked in similar situations.

  “Of course it’s necessary, Doctor,” a man’s voice answered through a slight Southern accent. “If you weren’t blindfolded, then where we’re headed wouldn’t be much of a secret, now would it?”

  Hick, Felix thought. He wasn’t sure which was worse, the slight, unrefined twang in the man’s voice or the fact that he was trying to cover it up.

  “I understand the concept of blindfolding just fine,” Felix answered. “It’s the means by which it’s executed that is presently baffling me.” He waited for a reply. He got none. “What I mean to say is that I assume this is a technology company, correct? There are multiple types of innovative, unobtrusive, and at the very least, less malodorous ways to blindfold a man than using what’s, presumably, the old necktie wrapped around my face.”

  The car stumbled through another pothole, forcing the side of Felix’s face to push against the ceiling again. He released a loud and pronounced groan.

  The man with the Southern accent chuckled. “Would you like to hear a joke?” he asked.

  Felix closed his eyes beneath the blindfold and exhaled loudly through his nose. “No, I would not,” he replied definitively.

  “A shame,” the man said. “It was a real boot stomper.”

  “To be sure,” Felix responded curtly.

  “Just as well. We’ll be gettin’ where we’re goin’ in a minute.”

  “Thank goodness.”

  Twenty minutes later, the car slowed. Felix could hear the sound of dirt kicking out from below its tires as it curved to a halt.

  Please, invisible super-being that people pray to, Felix thought, let this place at least resemble some semblance of a laboratory and not be some Podunk shed in the desert. And let not this hillbilly in the seat across from me rape me out here in the middle of nowhere. And if that does happen, then let there be a bar nearby where I can at least have a brandy after. Amen.

  The doors opened, and a few moments later, Felix was led softly from the automobile by his elbow. Two cool palms brushed against his heated cheeks and slowly lifted the necktie from his face. The light of the afternoon sun was harsh on his eyes, having just spent the last sixteen hours in darkness. As his pupils slowly contracted, Felix found himself looking into the eyes someone he’d never seen before. She was beautiful.

  “Well, you certainly look different than you sound,” he said, cupping his hand over his eyes as he examined her. She seemed mildly confused by the comment, but only for a moment. Her eyes darted left to the man standing by the open car door. He was busy rubbing an oil of some type into the brim of his cowboy hat. Its turpentine scent wafted across the thin air to her nostrils, causing them to crinkle.

  The Southerner looked up at her and grinned. “And here we are,” he said, placing the small container of oil back into his pocket. “On time and everythin’.” He put his hands on his hips and stuck out his ribs as he looked back and forth between Felix and the woman, fishing, perhaps, for some further instruction. There was none. “Best get back to HQ then,” he finally said. He deflated his chest and got into the back seat of the van. The van coughed to life and quickly sped toward the horizon, leaving a dusty haze trailing behind it.

  Felix looked around his surroundings. Other than an old wooden fence that didn’t seem to serve any particular purpose, he saw nothing ahead but a sea of brown dirt. His brow furrowed.

  “Are we waiting for another transport?” he asked. The attractive woman smiled and pointed directly behind him. Felix turned around and saw what seemed to be an old farm silo. It was the only significant break in the horizon for miles. “Oh,” he replied, “and there that is.”

  “Let’s go inside,” the woman said, turning him by the shoulder.

  “She speaks!” Felix exclaimed in an exaggerated tone. The pair began their stroll toward the building.

  “Yes,” she replied. “Quite frequently, if you must know.”

  “Well, you weren’t doing any of it in the car during our trip, now were you?”

  She didn’t respond.

  “I spent hours deflecting off-color stories and jokes about hillbillies, of all people, for hours,” Felix whined. “I can only imagine how much more stimulating a trip it may have been had you chosen to grace us with your voice. I’m sure you’re filled with a novel’s worth of interesting things to say. At the very least, maybe you could have given me a primer on what’s exactly going on here. Do you realize that you just wasted half a day’s time not explaining what I’m sure you’re about to begin to explain?”

  He paused for a moment and stopped walking. “Unless, of course, the reason you didn’t speak for that entire trip is because you weren’t in the car and were simply waiting for us to arrive here. Oh dear, being around that man in the cowboy hat seems to have lowered my I.Q. by osmosis.” Felix clenched his mouth closed and resumed following the woman.

  She snickered. “Yes, all signs do seem to point toward that conclusion. Here we are.” She pulled a small key ring from her pocket and opened the two-dollar padlock on the silo door. It creaked open loudly. A sharp gleam quickly escaped from the building, its brash light causing Felix to shield his eyes again. The woman took his left hand and guided him inside.

  The silo’s interior was rotting and dusty. It looked precisely as one would expect it to, save the oversized and obtrusive giant metal cylinder at its center. The woman walked toward it and entered numbers into a touchpad on its face. The cylinder split apart vertically, revealing a small area inside with three red upholstered chairs surrounding a small lacquered table.

  “If you tell me that’s my office for the next four years, I’m leaving,” Felix said, unsure if he was kidding.

  The woman laughed. “You’ve never seen an elevator before?” She put her hand softly against the small of his back and guided him forward into the little room. Felix mumbled something inaudible and followed her to the inside of the cylinder.

  “Have a seat,” the woman said.

  Felix did as he was asked. “Thank goodness you all thought far enough ahead to put chairs in your elevator. After a sixteen hour car ride I don’t think I could actually stand on my feet for thirty seconds,” he said sarcastically.

  The woman laughed.

  “You’re a giggle-box, you know that?”

  “The elevator ride is going to be substantially longer than thirty seconds. Faster than to what you’re accustomed as well. Ipso Facto, chairs,” she said smugly.

  “Lady, you blindfolded me inside of a car with a provincial, and made me sport a dirty necktie around my face for more than half a day’s time. Then, you led me to a farm silo in the middle of the desert with a huge futuristic elevator inside.”

  “Yes, I’m quite on top of current events, Mr. Kala,” she responded.

  “It’s Doctor, actually, and all I’m trying to communicate is that you keep laughing at me for either making perfectly reasonable assumptions or having perfectly reasonable confusions.”

  “And that’s the first thing I’ll teach you about where you’re going,” she said. “Leave all of your assumptions here. They’re of no use where we’re going.” She raised her eyebrows at Felix and smiled. “Ready?”

  “Yes?” he responded, more a question than an answer.

  “Good.” She ran her hand over the left wall of the elevator. Multiple blue illuminated circles the size of quarters a
ppeared on the metal’s surface. The rows of lights were identical in size and shape, but the woman knew exactly which to press and in what order.

  Felix heard a quiet mechanical buzzing and the doors of the elevator moved toward each other. As they shut, he leaned his head to its side to catch a final glimpse of the outside world he was leaving behind. The light of the evening sun began to shrink between the hulking doors, thinner and thinner against their edges until completely locked from the elevator. Though most of his life had been spent indoors, Felix began to miss the sun’s light, just moments following its absence.

  The tiny room began to descend, and he kept his eyes fixed on the doors as the woman sat in the chair across from him.

  “Don’t worry about that,” she said. The question broke his train of thought.

  “Hmm?” he mumbled, shifting his attention back to her.

  “The sun,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

  “Oh, I’m not worried about the sun,” he replied. “I’m fairly certain it can handle itself just fine without me for at least a short while.”

  “I meant, don’t worry about a lack of exposure to the sun. The facility is equipped with special solar bulbs which serve to process your Vitamin D even more efficiently than that big star they’re designed after.”

  “That puts my mind at ease about damn near everything then.” Felix sighed and leaned his chair back on two legs without lifting his feet from the floor.

  The pair sat in silence for a few seconds before the woman spoke again. “So, there are a few things we need to go over before arriving at the lab.”

  “Speaking of which, when is that going to be?” he asked. “This thing feels as though it’s moving at about two meters per second. Where are we going, the center of the Earth?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied.

  “Oh, sure, now I’m being ridiculous.”

  “There are a few things--”



  “What’s your name?”

  “My name?”

  “I’m sorry for assuming you have one,” he said, “but at least where I hail from, you know, the surface of the Earth, it’s considered polite to introduce one’s self before engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation.”

  “It’s Karen,” she said.

  “Now that was easy,” he replied.

  “As I was saying,” she continued, “there are a few things I would like to go over with you before we arrive.”

  “I assure you that you have my rapt attention,” he said, “unless, of course, the table has something to say.” Felix poked the small table at the center of the room with his index finger as if trying to wake it.

  “You’re dead,” she said.

  “Someone’s a bit sensitive,” he replied. “I’m sorry about the table jab, I didn’t realize you legitimately believed yourself in competition with your own furniture.”

  “I meant, Felix,” she said, “that you are legally dead. The police have already found your body in what remains of your apartment, which burned down this morning.”

  “And they think it was me in that apartment?” he asked.

  “Yes, they found your teeth, which match perfectly with your dental record,” she answered. “Felix Kala was pronounced legally dead as of 3:14 P.M. this afternoon.”

  Felix started to respond, but instead, quickly jammed his hand into his mouth to feel for any missing teeth.

  “They’re all still there,” Karen assured him. “Just who exactly who do you think we are, anyway?”

  “I don’t know who you people are,” he answered, removing the hand from his mouth. “All I know is that you are well-funded and tricky. Possibly amoral. I know you probably don’t have much regard for the law, but if you used fake teeth, aren’t you concerned that the police might notice something like that?”

  “Oh, they aren’t fake,” she said. Felix stuck his hand back inside of his mouth and began counting aloud as he felt each tooth.

  “They’re real,” she said, “but not from your mouth. We grew them.”

  Felix pulled the hand from his mouth. “Ew,” he said. “Let’s stop taking the conversation in this direction, shall we? Let’s get back to the fact that you killed me today. I want to know why this was done, and what makes you think you can get away with it. I still have to worry about coming out after this odd affair is said and done, and being dead will likely have an adverse effect on any attempt to reintegrate with the populace, wouldn’t you say?”

  “Don’t worry,” Karen replied, “it’s just so that no one needlessly searches for you. As you know, our work is confidential. Any contact with--”

  “Yes, yes,” Felix answered, “I suppose I shouldn’t have asked the ‘why’ part. I’m mainly just curious about what happens to me in four years. I don’t want to assume some other identity. I do have a life, you know.”

  “Actually, Felix,” she said sharply, “I do know. I have your file, and no, you don’t have much of a life. That being said, don’t worry. You’ll return as yourself. You’ll go to the local authorities, state that you faked your own death, plead the fifth as to why, and pay the fine. There’s no jail time for the offense. The amount owed will be covered by us in addition to your stipend.”

  Felix leaned back in his chair once more and mulled over this new information. “Really?” he finally asked. “There’s a fine for faking your own death?”

  Karen nodded.

  “You should have asked before killing me,” he mumbled.

  “No,” she responded, “you should have asked. If you had questions about this procedure, you could have contacted us. It was in your contract.”

  Felix hadn’t read the document closely. He’d tried, but each time he looked down at it, all he could see were imaginary dancing dollar signs that made him giddily turn back to the page where the amount of his payment was spelled out digit by digit. It was the same page, just one line above the payment details, where his signature had been required.

  “Fair enough,” he said.

  Karen looked at him, her expression confused. “Thank you,” she said hesitantly.

  “I’m not an unreasonable man, you know.”

  “I never stated such.”

  Felix looked at her and smiled. “Let me ask you something,” he said.

  “If I can answer it, I will.”

  “If I’m dead, should I be concerned that we’re travelling straight down?”

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