CHAPTER ONE (The Vegas Rift by David F. Gray)
Tragedy brushed my family in the fall of 2013.
On the morning of October 7th, I left my house for school, coasting down the driveway of our tidy, red brick suburban home on my shiny, black Schwinn Sidewinder. It was cold that morning. My mother wanted to drive me, but I had been begging her for weeks to let me ride my bike. At fourteen, I was two years away from getting my license, but I was also only one year away from high school. All my friends were riding their bikes to school and I did not want them to see me getting a ride from mom. Besides, she had to take my younger brother Doug to his elementary school, which was six miles in the opposite direction. She finally gave in and spent the next several years blaming herself for what happened.
My name is Samuel Franklin Carr…Sam to my friends. I grew up in a small town called Independence. It might not have been as idyllic as Mayberry, like in the old Andy Griffith show, but it was a great place to be a kid. Nestled in the beautiful hills of northern Kentucky, it was surrounded by thick woods and lush farmland. The neighbors were good people who looked out for one another. My friends and I hung out at each other’s houses and if we trudged home a little after dark, the worse that happened was that we were scolded for being late for dinner. It was that kind of town.
I took off that morning, peddling down the sidewalk that ran next to Madison Pike. I remember waving at a few of the neighbors and getting waves in return. My school was on the other side of Independence, which wasn’t saying much. It took me all of five minutes to scoot through the center of town, which included a city hall, a couple of churches and a handful of small ‘mom and pop’ stores. I made it through to the other side, turned right at Maple Street, and burned rubber. There was now nothing between me and my school but open road and empty fields.
That’s the last thing I remember about that day. Later, my mom and dad explained to me that Fred Carson had been working all night at Brooks Dairy Farm a few miles south of my school. He had been pulling double shifts for several weeks to help defer his wife’s medical expenses. Fred was a good man in his late sixties with a weak heart. He had no business putting in those kinds of hours, but he loved his wife and was willing to do whatever it took to see to her needs.
He fell asleep at the wheel. His battered pickup swerved across the narrow two-lane road and smashed into a cluster of trees. In a perfect example of the worst timing ever, I was passing those trees at that same instant. He hit me head on and sent me flying a good thirty feet. It would have been further, but a thick, sturdy oak tree blocked my flight path. I smashed into the trunk and fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding from dozens of cuts as well as a gaping hole in my abdomen, courtesy of a sharp, broken branch jutting out from the tree.
But for the fact that Ruth Foster had been following Fred after dropping off her son at my school, I would have bled out in minutes. Ruth saw the whole thing and pulled over immediately. She had her mobile phone with her and called 911. While she was telling the dispatcher about the accident, she pulled off her slip, wadded it up and pressed it against my gushing wound.
Paramedics arrived ten minutes later. I was airlifted to St. Jude’s where the trauma team went to work. Fred was not airlifted anywhere. The coroners arrived on the scene twenty minutes later. One of them took charge of Fred’s body, which was slumped over the wheel of his truck. It took them another fifteen minutes to find his head.
I did not regain consciousness for several weeks. My bodily injuries were bad enough; a lacerated liver, a collapsed lung, two broken arms and four shattered bones in my right leg. Far worse was the damage to my skull. The head trauma caused my brain to swell. I was placed into a medically induced coma while the doctors did everything they could to save my life. My mom told me that within twenty-four hours of arriving at St. Jude’s, my heart stopped three times. The third time I was gone for almost two minutes.
This was my first death.
The doctors nearly gave up but finally managed to get a heartbeat. Long story short, the swelling went down in my brain and they were able to repair my skull with several small metal plates.
It was a long road back. When I finally did regain consciousness, I could neither move nor speak. For that matter I could barely think. It was as if I was lost in a thick, swirling fog. Faces would appear in my narrow field of view. I felt as if I should know them, but they were strangers.
I slowly regained a little movement in my arms and legs, and bit by bit my mind started to clear, but two months later the seizures began. I was sedated and the strangers, who I now understood were my parents, were told that I could very well be dealing with these seizures for the rest of my life.
It took me six months before I could speak without slurring my words. It was another three months before I could manage to take a few steps with the aid of a walker. My memory slowly returned, but for a long time it was as if I was seeing my past life through thick gauze. I knew the faces of my friends and family. I could remember events like birthdays and holidays, but I could not feel them. Eventually I got it all back, but like I said, it was a long, painful journey.
My physical therapist warned me that I might never regain the full use of my body. I gritted my teeth and set out to prove her wrong. Months of work slowly paid off. I regained the use of my legs and managed to walk again. The seizures continued, but they slowly lessened until they finally disappeared altogether.
As I worked to get my body back, something wonderful happened to my brain. The specialist I saw on a weekly basis told me that sometimes, when injured, the brain can actually rewire itself. It can form new neural pathways and create new synaptic patterns. In short, the undamaged parts of my brain began to take over functions once performed by the damaged sections.
By the time I turned seventeen, I was running five to six miles a day. Seeing how driven I was, my dad bought a bench and a set of weights. Thanks to that, and the guidance of my physical therapist, I bulked up considerably. My hair grew back. My face had been relatively undamaged, and the rest of my scars were hidden by my clothes. As for school, I had to play some serious catch up, but I managed to graduate just one year late. Because of my grades, I even scored a full scholarship to Ohio State.
There were permanent changes. I understood that I would carry the physical, mental and emotional scars for the rest of my life. My legs ached when I pushed too hard or when the weather changed. I never rode a bike again, even though I could not remember getting hit. That did not bother me too much, since I had my license by my seventeenth birthday. Driving was never a problem.
There was something else. Every now and then, I felt the world around me grow…well, ‘thin’ is the only word that fits. It was as if the entire universe was nothing more than a heavy, theatrical curtain, and if I could figure out how to do it, I could pull that curtain back and see what was hiding behind it. I chalked those feelings up to the way my brain was now wired and got on with my life.
I graduated in 2017 and promptly left for Ohio State, where I studied structural engineering and architecture. I discovered that I liked designing and building things. Three years later Doug graduated. I came home that summer and we decided to take an old-fashioned road trip…one last fling before we ended up in different states and only saw each other for weddings, births and holidays. Mom wasn’t thrilled about us dipping into our savings and less than thrilled that we were going to be spending a lot of long days on the road. She had nearly lost one son to an accident and had no desire to tempt fate.
My dad shrugged and said something to the effect that if we did not do it now, we never would. Adulthood, that dreaded reality that included full time jobs, mates, children and mortgages was charging at us head on. And so, on a sparkling May morning in the year 2020, we packed the used but sturdy Subaru that had been my graduation present, hugged mom and dad goodbye and started driving.
I can’t begin to describe what we were feeling as we drove away from our house. The excitement, the sense of adventure and, above all, that feeling of absolute freedom was intoxicating. We were laughing like fiends and screaming like banshees. Any cop would have pulled us over on suspicion of driving under the influence. In time, we settled down and focused on our trip.
Doug had two passions…film and American history…in that order. Because of that we had spoken in front of our parents about taking a tour of some of the ghost towns that could be found in states like Arizona and Nevada. It sounded like fun and we honestly planned on hunting down a few of the more obscure locations. However, we had serious ulterior motives. As we put some miles between ourselves and our home, one single destination was on our minds…Vegas.
For years I had been fascinated by ‘Sin City’ and the chance to see it for real was irresistible. Doug was way too young to legally drink or gamble, and I was barely twenty-one, but we figured that there had to be some kind of trouble we could get ourselves into. If nothing else we would take in a few of the ‘safer’ shows, girl-watch by the pool and gorge ourselves at the buffets. To ease any feelings of guilt, we visited a couple of the lesser known ghost towns hidden away in New Mexico, but as soon as our consciences would allow, we put the empty desert behind us and set our course for Nevada.
Not long after that, on a hot, dry spring morning, we found ourselves cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as the Strip. We checked into our amenity-filled room at the big green MGM Grand, grateful to be out of the desert heat. We cleaned up, stuffed ourselves at the buffet and hit the Strip. As we walked, we gawked at the massive hotels like a couple of farm boys seeing the big city for the first time. We took it all in, passing the Bellagio, Planet Hollywood, the Flamingo and finally drawing even with Caesars Palace.
We were about halfway past Caesars when I sensed a sudden blur of motion to my left. I heard a sharp ‘snap, snap’ and someone shoved a laminated flyer into my stomach. I had been staring at the fountains in front of Caesars. I had seen them in a dozen different movies and had to admit that seeing them in person was something of a letdown. They were a little smaller than I had imagined.
I took the flyer out of sheer reflex. I glanced down at it and saw that it featured a nude female model named Brandy, along with a toll-free number. Doug snickered like a grade school kid who had just found a stack of Playboys in his dad’s closet. With a righteous glare I dropped it. Brandy joined flyers for Sky, Sparkle and thousands of other um, professional ladies carpeting the pavement.
I glanced at the flyer’s source and saw that it was a tiny, stoop-shouldered Hispanic woman who had to be in her seventies. A second look revealed a line of people not unlike this woman, all of them handing out flyers. They were a mixed bag; Hispanic, Caucasian and African American. They were men and women, tall and short. Most of them had seen the other side of fifty and all of them had the same beaten down look that spoke of a hard life bereft of hope.
Ignoring me, the old woman took another flyer from a stack in her left hand and flicked it twice with her right thumb, producing the snapping noise that had caught my attention. She practically shoved it into a middle-aged man’s ample gut. Like me, he took it and gave it the once over. Unlike me he shoved it into his back pocket.
It was my first glance into the darker side of Vegas and I found it deeply disturbing. We were surrounded by some of most opulent hotels and restaurants on the face of the earth and yet here, across the street from one such hotel, stood this line of broken human beings. I grew up in a middle-class bubble, insulated from hunger and homelessness by hard working parents. I had dealt with my share of pain and setbacks, but looking at the faces of those people, I realized that I had no clue what it meant to experience true hopelessness.
“You should’ve kept her,” said Doug, oblivious of the dark turn my thoughts had suddenly taken. He nudged me with an elbow, forcing my attention away from the line of people.
“I think that she was your type,” said Doug with a smirk. “I could see the two of you settling down and starting a family.”
“Shut up,” I growled. That earned me another smirk and a chuckle. Doug elbowed me again and we moved on. He knew better than to push it. I was still hurting over Marcy. I haven’t really said anything about my love life, mainly because there’s nothing to tell. Rather, there’s a story, but it’s a short one, and it goes a little something like this.
Boy meets girl while a senior in high school. Boy dates girl. Boy falls head over heels in love with girl. Boy goes to college. Girl goes to college. Boy waits for girl. Girl hooks up with college senior. Girl dumps boy.
We walked as far as the Treasure Island, did an about-face and headed back to the MGM. We were not used to the desert heat and by the time we passed Harrah’s we were both drained. I could feel my skin drying out and my lips starting to chap. I made us cross the Strip before we got back to Caesars, ashamed that I did not want to see that line of broken people handing out their flyers. We were within a block of the MGM when Doug nudged me again.
“Stop that,” I snapped.
“Check it out, Sam,” he said, pointing across the strip to our left. “There’s a multiplex back there.” I followed his finger and saw an opening between the Grand and a line of shops. Through the opening I could see a wide walkway that ran maybe twenty yards or so away from the Strip. From there it made a sharp left. On the wall opposite the Grand was a multi-colored sign that read ‘Cinema on the Strip’. “Come on,” said Doug. He jogged to the nearest crossing, waited for the light and then headed toward the opening.
“We come to Vegas and you want to see a movie we could probably see at home?” I wasn’t really surprised. Doug was a film buff of the highest order, leaning mostly toward the fantasy and science fiction genres. He loved it so much in fact that he had been accepted into the film school at UCLA. I had a strong hunch that I would be reading my brother’s name on the credits of some Hollywood blockbuster not many years hence.
We entered the walkway and moved away from the crowded strip. I took a deep, grateful breath. The shade provided by the high walls on either side fell over us. It was a good ten degrees cooler and I shivered as the sweat dried on my back and neck.
I glanced at the sign as we walked past. There was no arrow pointing the way to this theoretical multiplex but since there was only one way we could go, directions were not needed. The only other point of interest was a pair of Styrofoam cups, like the kind you get at Starbucks, lying on the pavement below the sign. They somehow looked lost and forlorn. We turned the corner and followed the walkway to yet another ninety degree turn to the right.
“I don’t see any theater,” I said as we walked. It was weirdly quiet. My words felt muffled. The high walls on both sides made me feel small and insignificant.
“Probably just ahead,” said Doug. We turned another corner and he pointed. “There.” Sure enough, there was a large marquee bolted onto a wall over four sets of double doors. The glass was tinted dark enough to render the interior invisible. Doug read the list of offered movies quickly.
“Yes!” he cried out in glee.
“What?” I growled. I wanted to get back to our room and make plans for the evening.
“They’re showing Forbidden Planet,” said Doug. I followed his eyes and saw the title of the movie in question glowing in bright red LED letters. Next to it in smaller letters, I saw ‘Limited Engagement …Today Only’.
“So?” I asked. Doug shook his head, exasperated at my indifference.
“You liked it when I showed it to you in the hospital. Forbidden Planet; MGM, 1956, starring Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pigeon and Anne Francis in some of the sexiest outfits to come out of that decade.”
“I remember the outfits,” I said. “They were the best thing about it…that and the guy from those God-awful Airplane movies.”
“They’re hilarious,” said Doug, affecting a lofty attitude. “You’ve just got no taste.” He waved at the marquee. “I’ve been dying to see it on the big screen for years.”
“You’ve already seen it,” I said. “In fact, you’ve seen it more than once. Why waste what little time we have here in Vegas?”
“Hello? Big screen,” said Doug. “To see a classic like that the way it’s meant to be seen will be a treat!” I pointed back to the Strip.
“We’re in the middle of America’s playground and you want to waste time watching a movie from the fifties?”
“It’s got Robbie the Robot,” said Doug.
“Oh, well that’s different. I mean it’s got Robbie the Robot.” My mockery phased him not at all.
“It’s a serious science fiction movie,” said Doug. “You don’t get many of those. Come on, watch it with me.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I liked movies just fine, but my tastes were decidedly different from Doug’s, running more toward the action/adventure genre with small doses of horror on the side. My brother snorted, disgusted by my lack of culture. He scanned the marquee and glanced at his watch.
“The next showing is in ten minutes,” he said. “It’s cool inside. We can see the movie and then figure out what to do this evening.”
“No thanks,” I said. “You want to waste your time, go right ahead. I’m going to head back to our room and see what shows are available tonight.”
“Anne Francis,” said Doug. “Miniskirts. That alone is worth the price of a ticket. You might actually enjoy yourself. Stranger things have happened.” He was so earnest that I almost relented, but the long days on the road had taken their toll. I was ready for a short nap in a cool, quiet room followed by a good show accented with a little bit of Vegas nightlife. The PG-13 version of course.
“You go ahead,” I said, reading the marquee. “This thing is a little over ninety minutes long. Have fun and meet me back in the room as soon as it’s over. I’ll find us something to do tonight. You got any preferences?”
“Boobs,” said Doug, smirking. “Whatever you find, make sure it has a lot of boobs. And I mean a lot…like twenty-five at least.” My brother could never fail to blindside me with his sense of humor. I barked a laugh and headed back down the corridor.
“You’re too young for boobs,” I said over my shoulder.
“I’m exactly the right age for boobs,” he replied.
“I don’t think mom and dad would agree,” I said.
“Mom and dad aren’t here. I’ll see you back at the room.” I waved and he disappeared through the darkened doors.
I threaded my way back to the Strip and rejoined the massive parade of tourists as they gawked at the sights. Curiously, we had not encountered anyone else from the moment we entered the walkway. There had been no one coming in or out of the theater and I had not seen anyone through the darkened glass doors. I put it down to the fact that, like me, my fellow tourists did not come to Vegas to go the same kind of multiplex that they could find in their hometown.
I got back to our room and thumbed through a magazine that listed a gazillion shows. I settled on a pirate themed magic show at the Treasure Island. It looked like fun, although unfortunately for Doug there were no boobs. Rather, there were plenty of boobs, but they were properly covered. Not that it mattered. Doug could not have gotten into any of the more risqué shows. Even if he had a fake ID his boyish face screamed ‘underage’. He would just have to settle for the skimpy but tasteful costumes worn by the showgirls of the Treasure Island.
I used my trusty iPhone to secure two tickets for the early show. As soon as I got the confirmation I stripped down and took a long, hot shower. Pulling out a comfortable pair of sweatpants and a loose T-shirt, I fell into one of the full-sized beds and turned on the television. The long day and the cool room conspired against me and within minutes I had fallen into a deep, restful sleep.
* * *
The door slammed and Doug shouted at me. I jerked awake, annoyed and a little angry at his thoughtlessness, but when I rolled over I saw that the room was empty. My head ached and I rubbed my temples. That feeling of thinness is always strongest when I first wake up and this time was no exception. I sat up, blinking my eyes, and for a few moments I felt as if I could almost reach out and touch that curtain. I got up, stumbled to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on my face. The thinness faded but did not disappear. Like the bedroom, the bathroom was empty. My brother was nowhere in sight. The light coming through the window had that late afternoon feel and when I glanced at the clock, I saw that it was nearly six.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered. I shuffled back to my bed, grabbed the remote and turned off the television. Whatever police procedural was playing disappeared. I figured it was something from that show that had jolted me awake.
I wasn’t worried. My kid brother was probably wandering the Strip, taking in the sights. The idea that anything might have happened to him did not cross my mind. Despite the fact that he had a marginally decent head on his shoulders, he was easily distracted. In my mind I saw him leaving the theater, heading back toward the MGM and something, probably one of the many free shows that dotted the Strip, catching his attention. For that matter, he was probably somewhere inside the mammoth Grand, taking in the lion habitat or grabbing a quick snack.
I grabbed my iPhone off the bureau and thumbed his number. It rang for a while and then went to his voice mail. That bothered me a little, but I figured that the idiot might be wandering around the casino watching the guests lose their money. It was certainly loud enough down there that he might not hear his phone ringing, although he should certainly feel it vibrating. I tried again with the same result. The second time I got his voice mail I left him a terse message.
“Hey dick weed, we’ve got an eight o’clock show at the Treasure Island and it’s too late to return the tickets. Get your ass in gear and call me.” I tossed my phone onto the bed and tried to figure out what to do. I considered going to the show without him. He could find his way there easily enough. It would serve him right, but the more I thought about it the more worried I became. Granted, my brother was an idiot, but he was not a thoughtless idiot. While I could imagine him getting distracted, I could not imagine him ditching me like this.
I wandered over to the wide window overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard. We had splurged to get a Strip view and it was worth it. The late afternoon sun was giving way to twilight. Across the way the faux skyline of the New York, New York glowed in the dusk. I could see a steady flow of traffic, both mechanical and human, moving along the Strip and wondered where my brother could possibly be in that massive sea of humanity.
I leaned my forehead against the warm glass. The idea of looking for him was ridiculous. Even if he was in the hotel, the Grand was so large that I could wander around for the rest of the year and not find him.
“Come on, you idiot,” I whispered, my breath fogging the glass. “Get back here. Call me. Send up a flare.” I tore myself away from the view, plopped onto my bed and stared at the ceiling for a while. When that got old, I got up and looked out of the window again. Nightfall was coming hard. I knew that it was ridiculous, but I half expected to see a tiny Doug jumping up and down on the Strip far below, trying to get my attention. A few minutes later I sat down on the small couch beside the window and continued to wait.
Sometime around seven I gave up. Half angry, half worried, I got dressed, went down to Guest Services and had them print out a copy of Doug’s ticket. I went back to our room and carefully placed it on the corner of his bed. I emailed him a copy for good measure and, with nothing else to do, stormed out of the room.
The evening crowd was gradually replacing the day crowd. T-shirts and jeans were giving way to sports jackets and sexy evening dresses. The elevator was crowded on the way down and the casino was starting to hum. I wandered through row after row of slot machines trying to spot my brother. The beeps, trills and electronic fanfares of the brightly lit machines slowly grew more and more annoying. The lights seemed to flash directly into my eyes as if they were trying to blind me. The sounds became harsh, metallic and jarring. Time seemed to disappear.
As I prowled up and down the aisles a terrible feeling hit me. There was no way out. I was lost, doomed to wander through the casino forever. My mind curtain fluttered, as if it was going to pull back, and I was suddenly certain that I did not want to see what lay behind it. I bulled my way through another row of slots. When I came to the end, I caught a glimpse of the hotel lobby to my left. I stifled a cry of relief and hurried towards it. Once there I managed to regain a little bit of my equilibrium. I crossed the lobby and made my way outside to the Strip.
Suddenly I was so homesick I could taste it. All I cared about at that moment was finding Doug, getting our stuff and getting the hell out of Las Vegas. I wanted to see my parents again. I wanted to be back at our house, enjoying the simple sensation of being a part of a family. I wanted to go home.
I stood at the edge of Las Vegas Boulevard, watching the throng of people as they passed by. Behind me the Grand glowed bright green. The light spilled on the faces of the crowd, giving their skin an otherworldly hue. Every now and then one of them would glance at me. I suddenly felt as if I was being watched. Of course, in Vegas, you are always being watched. There are cameras everywhere, especially in the casinos, but even so I could not shake the feeling that I was somehow being singled out.
I finally decided to retrace our steps from earlier that afternoon. It was a hopeless long shot. The Strip was packed with pedestrians. I could have passed to within a few feet of my brother and not seen him. I eased into the flow of the crowd and headed toward the multiplex, but after several minutes I realized that I had somehow passed the opening to the corridor. I tried to go back but the crowd’s momentum pushed me forward.
I finally managed to turn around but now the crowd was blocking my way. They pushed past me in their eagerness to get to wherever they were going. I got more than a few glares. Someone shoved me aside with a curse and disappeared into the crowd. In frustration I darted to my right and managed to join a stream of people heading in the opposite direction. I kept looking for the opening but a few minutes later I was back at the main entrance to the Grand. I edged out of the flow of humanity and tried to think.
My choices were fairly simple. I could go to the show by myself and hope that Doug found his way there. Or I could go back to our room and wait, but for some reason I felt as if I needed to find the multiplex. I turned around I tried again, walking slowly. I almost missed it, but this time I forced myself to focus. It was like trying to wade through a river of molasses, but I finally saw the entrance. I had nearly passed it again but at the last second glimpsed it out of the corner of my eye. I turned back, bumping into a young couple who had been tailgating me. I got a nasty look and a muttered ‘asshole’ for my trouble.
I threaded my way through the crowd, keeping my eyes on the entrance. I had the crazy notion that if I looked away for even a second it would disappear. The glaring lights from the Strip penetrated only a few feet into the opening. Beyond that there was only darkness. I stepped into the corridor. The light faded and I had to give my eyes a few seconds to adjust.
The first thing I noticed was that the ‘Cinema on the Strip’ sign was no longer there. I stared at the barely illuminated wall, wondering if I had somehow found the wrong corridor, but a moment later I saw the pair of Styrofoam cups lying on the pavement.
Since leaving the MGM I had been growing more and more worried about Doug. Now, seeing that bare wall, I suddenly knew beyond doubt that something was wrong. I moved on, penetrating deeper into the corridor. The curtain in my mind fluttered again. I moved slowly, my head down and my shoulders hunched. I felt as if the high walls on either side were going to come crashing down, burying me under tons of rubble. I turned the first corner and the glow from the Strip disappeared entirely. Only the dull gray light from the full moon overhead, reflecting off the walls, provided any illumination.
A few minutes later I turned the final corner and saw the theater. The marquee was dark, and I could see nothing beyond the doors. I stopped about ten yards away, trying to make some kind of sense of what I was seeing. There was no light of any kind coming from the theater; no security lights, no exit signs…nothing. The place was obviously closed, although I could not imagine why.
“My brother is in there.” I don’t know why I said that out loud, but in the instant I did I knew that I was right. Doug was somewhere inside that building. Not only that, but he was in trouble…as in serious, life threatening trouble.
My first impulse was to get back to the Strip, find a cop and lead him to the theater. I took a step backward, but I suddenly understood one single fact. If I left now, I would never find my way back. The corridor, the theater and above all Doug would be forever lost to me. I don’t know how I knew that. Maybe something was leaking out from behind my curtain. It didn’t matter. I knew.
I finally got up the nerve to do what I knew I was going to do since I reached the theater. I walked over to the nearest door and gave it a tug. It opened easily, which again made no sense. If the theater was closed, it should have been locked. My heart felt as if it was going to pound its way out of my chest, but I managed to step inside.
A split second later my stomach clenched. I bent over and the remains of the MGM lunch buffet surged up my throat and splashed onto the floor. My body began to shake. A fierce wave of dizziness hit me. I barely managed to stay on my feet. I heaved again and again until the spasms finally passed. Gasping for breath, I spat the rest of the sour chunks out of my mouth and moved away from the disgusting puddle of puke. I don’t know how long it took, but I finally managed to get myself under control. The nausea and dizziness receded, although neither disappeared entirely.
At that moment, my fear nearly got the better of me. I looked at the doors. The world beyond was invisible. Half of my mind was screaming at me to get out of there, get back to the Strip and flag down a cop. The other half knew that it would be useless. If I left, I would never see Doug again.
For a moment, both halves hung in perfect balance. Then I turned and slowly moved deeper into the building. It wasn’t courage or even desperation that drove me. It was the unbearable idea that I would have to face my parents with a single bitter truth; I had abandoned their youngest son.
I shuffled forward another few feet, but again stopped. I could not see anything in what I figured had to be a foyer or lobby. If someone was waiting for me in some kind of elaborate trap, I would be helpless. I’m no weakling. The years of physical therapy and weight training had made me stronger than I had ever thought possible, but I was hardly a trained fighter. The two scuffles I had gotten myself into in high school were little more than glorified shoving matches. I would be no match for an armed assailant.
A sense of dread had been growing in me since I had stepped off the Strip. The quiet corridor where no one else was around, the dark multiplex…none of it made any sense. None of it was right. Far worse, I could not shake the idea that I was already too late to save Doug.
I tried to shove that idea away and get a hold of myself. I took a few steps forward but for the third time I stopped. I realized that there was no way I could go bumbling about the entire multiplex. I remembered from the marquee that there were eight individual theaters. The idea of finding them, let alone searching them in complete darkness was not just terrifying – it was impossible. Going back to the Strip and buying a flashlight was also impossible.
I pulled out my iPhone, squinting at it as it lit up. I thumbed Doug’s number but once again it went straight to his voice mail. I glanced at the power gauge and groaned. I had not charged it since that morning and it was down to less than a quarter charge, so even though I had a flashlight app on it, it wasn’t going to last long. I didn’t have a choice. I turned on the light and held it high above my head.
I was in a mid-sized foyer. Directly in front of me was the ticket booth, encased in Plexiglas. Like the rest of the multiplex it was deserted. On either side was a set of swinging double doors. I glanced at the floor and saw that it was covered with some kind of dark tile that reflected the light from my phone. Other than the ticket booth, the foyer was empty. I edged to the right and pushed through the doors.
The lobby was much larger than the foyer. Along the opposite wall was a concession stand. To either side were halls that led to the individual theaters. To my right I could see a small alcove that held maybe a half dozen video games and a couple of pinball machines. None of them were working. I kept moving forward, expecting at any moment to be rushed by some axe wielding serial killer.
A quick glance at the concession stand confirmed what I had feared since entering the building. The Cinema on the Strip was definitely closed. And not just closed. It was abandoned. There were no candy bars or milk duds or snacks of any kind behind the glass. Along the back wall was a long counter that at one time had probably held popcorn machines and soda dispensers, but they were long gone. From the dust on the glass and the stains on the wall it was obvious that this place had been closed for a long time. And yet, just a few hours earlier, I had seen a marquee listing both current movies and one decades old science fiction classic. Nothing made sense, so I put a lid on my thoughts. At that moment, what this place was, or even why it was, was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was finding my brother.
Phone held high, I headed into the hall on the right. I could barely see the four sets of double doors, two on each side, that led to the theaters. They were placed about thirty feet apart, two sets at the head of the hall, two at the rear. Over each set was an electronic sign that indicated which movie was playing, but like the rest of the theater, they were dark. The black tile gave way to what might have been red carpet, although in the darkness I could not be sure of the color. Bolted to the walls were large metal frames that held movie posters of current and coming attractions. At first, I thought that they were empty, but as I moved deeper into the hall, I saw that one frame still held a poster. I got close enough to see that it was for Forbidden Planet. There was Leslie and Anne, and a large walking machine with what looked like a popcorn popper on his head…the famous Robbie the Robot. The glass that covered the frame was broken, and the poster was frayed along the sides. Even in the faint light of my phone, I could see that the colors had faded, as if it had been neglected for years.
“Trap.” I don’t know why I said that word out loud, but the instant I did I knew that I was right. I was walking into a trap, the same trap that had taken Doug. “Trap,” I said again. My voice was dull and distorted, barely audible, and yet my throat suddenly felt raw, as if I had just screamed. “Trap,” I said for the third time, and now it was worse. My voice seemed to emanate from somewhere outside of my body…and it did not sound human. In fact, it sounded the opposite of human…not inhuman, but anti-human. It was harsh, guttural, and it was the single worst thing I have ever heard. For an insane moment I had the nearly overwhelming desire to grab my throat with both hands and rip it out of my neck. I never wanted to make that sound again.
I could not even guess what Doug had seen or heard when he had entered the multiplex. Maybe he had perceived it as crowded, with each theater operating normally and the concession stand open for business. Maybe the instant he had walked through those doors he had been caught and taken to…where? I had no idea, but as I looked at that battered poster, I knew where I was going next.
The swinging doors to the theater were wide open, as if beckoning me inside. I obliged and stepped through them, only to be met with a blank wall. To my right a narrow hall ran to what I assumed was the actual theater. I followed it for about fifteen feet to where it ended in a ninety-degree left turn. Straining both eyes and ears, I turned and kept going. I expected to emerge into an empty theater. My imagination was running wild and I would not have been surprised if the instant I saw the screen it would light up and begin to play some cheesy horror movie. Instead I had not gone more than a few yards before the top of a staircase appeared in the floor, leading down into even more darkness.
Doug was here, I thought. He went down these stairs. I inched forward and held my phone toward the black rectangular hole in the floor but all I could make out were the first four or five steps. I glanced behind me but there was nothing but more darkness. It felt like a living, breathing thing, and I fancied I could hear it sneering at my tiny pool of light.
I went down the stairs.
Looking back, I think that was when I reached the point of no return. If I had turned back at any time before that I might have made it back to the Strip. I would have abandoned my brother but at least I would have reclaimed my place in the world. The instant my foot touched that top step, all of that was off the table.
I don’t remember how long it took me to traverse that staircase. I don’t remember how many steps there were, although I have a vague memory of trying to count them. I do remember reaching the bottom after what seemed like hours and I remember seeing the floor as it slid into view.
The carpet on the stairs gave way to dull gray stone. I stepped onto the cold surface and froze. I stood there for long seconds, listening. The air felt thick and cold, and I knew that if I said anything, my voice would sound worse than it had in the hall above. The walls, like the floor, were smooth, unadorned stone. Ahead, another hall led into darkness.
I took long, slow breaths that sounded unnaturally loud in my ears. I could feel the weight of uncountable tons of dirt and rock hanging over my head. My shoulders hunched and I was suddenly sure that the ceiling was going to give way, burying me in an unmarked grave far beyond my world of light and happiness.
I managed to take a few steps forward. When nothing happened, I picked up my pace. The hall was relatively short, at least compared to the staircase. After what might have been five or ten minutes I came to a plain, gray metal door. There was no lock, just a handle. I grabbed it and pulled, but it did not budge. I gave it a shove and it moved easily. I opened it just wide enough to squeeze through…
…and stepped outside.
The Vegas Rift is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.
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