This story is my ante-up, me putting my money where my mouth is, whatever cliché you want. This is very much the kind of story I want to publish here with Patreon backing.
This is also one of the stories that got me into Viable Paradise. It’s near to my heart in several ways; I think you’ll see.
by Kellan Sparver
The traveler didn’t mean to be there; it just happened to be where he was.
Carlos sat at the dogleg of the bar, not watching the door but seated so he could, back to the jukebox blaring probably Elvis but no song in particular. He was a thousand other men–middle-aged, short hair the same color as his ragged leather coat, worn jeans tucked into worn cowboy boots.
The waitress brought him a refill. The bone-white mug of diner coffee, black, was tiny in his big brown hands. “You figured out what you want, hon?”
“Western omelette, home fries, white toast?” he said, ending in a question. The waitress’s well-filled black babydoll was distracting him; he made eye contact, smiled up at her a little shyly as he said it. A half-imagined quirk of rubyred lips.
“Comin’ right up.”
The bell over the door tinkled, the blast of cool evening air still warm in the air-conditioned chill. A young man, barely out of his teens. Expensive too-tight jacket at odds with worn pants, worn canvas backpack, slicked-back hair. The jacket was shiny, new — a LA designer, the kid was probably from one of the outlying barrios. He sat down at the other side of the bar, ordered a Coke. Carlos caught him staring after the waitress; the kid looked at him, then looked down quickly.
She brought the kid his Coke, and he took a long pull, then looked at Carlos and seemed to come to a decision. He picked his glass up and brought it over, sat down catty-corner from him, just on the other side of the dog-leg, with one stool separating them.
“Hola,” he fumbled. The traveler shook his head.
“Hey,” the kid said. “Uh, what’cha drinkin?”
“Coffee,” said the traveler, giving no ground.
“Uh, Coke,” the kid said, raising his own drink.
The kid turned noisily back to his drink, fumbling with the paper menu. The waitress came around again, took his order, and refilled Carlos’s coffee. He turned the cup idly in his hands, watching the pattern of bubbles on the surface.
The kid pulled out a cheapass phone, resumed a game on it, bright colors and orchestral music played through too-small speakers.
The waitress brought Carlos his omelette. “Anything else I can get you, hon?”
“No, ma’am,” he said, smiling again. No response. She was all business-like now with the kid around.
He pulled a bottle of Tabasco off the rack, applied it thoroughly to the omelette. Three or four bites in, he asked the kid, “Where you headed?”
The kid looked up, looked around in confusion, paused his game. “Are you asking me?”
“Yeah. Where you headed?”
“Uh– uh, Phoenix.”
“And after that?”
“To the spaceport. In Las Cruces.”
“And after that?”
The kid’s eyes widened. “Uh, to First Station.”
“When’s your flight?”
“Well, there’s a crew shuttle going up tomorrow night, but… The next commercial flight isn’t for a week and a half.”
“Uh hunh. And after that?”
“What do you mean, after that?”
“Mining, dockwork, service…? Sightseeing? Don’t tell me you’re going for one of them Elect of Heaven nutjobs.”
The kid snorted. “Not sightseeing. I really don’t know yet– I was sorta hoping to figure that out once I got there.”
“So you don’t have a work permit.”
“Uh, no, s–”
“So taking you up would be illegal,”
“Uh, I suppose so.” The kid looked uncomfortable.
The waitress showed up with the kid’s burger. “Want anything else, hon?” The kid mumbled something satisfied-sounding through a mouthful.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” Carlos asked, not sternly.
The kid’s eyes widened. He put his hamburger down, sat back, hands loose by his sides — defensive. “Beg pardon?”
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Victorville is the wrong way from LA for Cruces.”
“Oh. Uhh…” He looked confused. “I didn’t come from LA. I’m from Bakersfield.”
Carlos started mopping up runny egg with a heavily-seasoned wedge of potato. He heard the kid pick up his hamburger again and take a bite a few long seconds later.
“Where’d you get the coat then?” he asked.
The kid looked down. “My boy gave it to me. He just moved up from LA. He said it was cold in space.”
Carlos smiled a little. “He’s wrong.”
“Hunh? But all the teevee shows–”
“Are wrong. Depends if the sun is up.”
Silence. Carlos smiled, popped the last square of omelette into his mouth. “‘s nice coat though. You got a real nice boy.”
It was hard to tell around the burger, but the kid was maybe blushing. “Thanks.”
“How old are you?”
“You been together long?”
“Three or four months?”
“You figure on seeing him again?”
The kid put down the half-eaten burger. “Dunno. We kinda left it… open at the end there.”
They ate in silence for a while. Carlos took his time finishing up, slipped cash under his plate, was nursing his coffee when the kid’s bill came. The kid took out his phone again, did something to it, and tapped it on the table. He swore and tried again, before looking up at Carlos in confusion.
Carlos looked back. “It’s cash-only, kid, did you read the sign on the door?”
“I did, but I didn’t think that meant—”
Carlos cut him off. “I’ve got it.” He stood up and tucked another couple bills under the kid’s plate, hologram Presidents winking cheerfully at him. Thought, and added another for rubyred lips.
“I can pay you back!” said the kid. “What’s your mobile–”
“Don’t have one,” said Carlos. “And don’t lie. It’s no matter anyhow.”
“Uh, thank you–” The kid trailed off again. He said, “I never did catch your name.”
“Never gave it.”
The kid stuck out his hand to shake. “Hi, I’m Beck.”
The traveler shook reluctantly. “…Carlos.” He turned and headed for the door.
“Thanks for dinner, Carlos,” said the kid to his retreating back.
Carlos opened the door. The night air felt good on his skin. He held the door open with one hand and looked back at the kid.
Beck stared at him quizzically.
“It’s a long way to Cruces,” said Carlos.
“Are you offering me a ride?”
“Depends. Can you drive?”
“Uh, yeah?” Neither man moved.
“You’re letting their air out,” observed Carlos.
“Uh, yeah. Hey. Uh… thanks,” said Beck, walking towards the door.
“Gotta lot of miles to go before dawn,” said Carlos, as the door tinkled shut behind them.
They traded off just east of Yuma around 1 in the morning by the clock on the car’s HUD, pulled off on the wrong side of the road, the Interstate 8 marker glowing blue over the hills like an ersatz sun and the radio playing old-school electrohop music from Beck’s phone. Carlos made sure Beck knew the shifter, clutch, and brakes, let him refamiliarize himself for twenty minutes on the empty highway, told him not to go above third gear until they got over the pass, and then drifted off, snoring gently. He woke briefly when the car started going downhill, then again a few hours later around dawn. They charged up at a convenience store outside of Tucson. Beck paid with his phone, and they traded off again.
It was hot in the car by the time they were close to Las Cruces. Carlos rolled his window down. “You don’t have air conditioning?” asked Beck.
“Broke years ago,” said Carlos. “Don’t usually drive during the day.”
“What if you get stuck somewhere?”
“Got a shadecloth in back, lots of water. I sleep it out.”
“Do you do this often? Pick up hitchhikers?”
“Sometimes. You hitchhike often?”
“Oh yeah, all the time.”
Eventually Carlos pulled in to the motel parking lot and parked the car. The kid was dozing, head cushioned on the seatbelt.
Carlos shook him. “Don’t doze off. Coulda taken you anywhere.”
“Uh buh hunh,” said Beck dazedly. “Oh, we’re here?”
“Stay in the car,” said Carlos, and went to go get a room.
Beck was dozing again when he got back. Carlos rousted him, grabbed his own bag from the trunk, and showed him to their room, surprising the cleaner on her way out.
“You get some sleep,” Carlos told Beck. “Lock the door, put the chain in. I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?” asked Beck.
“You didn’t think you were just going to hop the fence and hide in the cargo bay, did you?”
“Uh, so, what do I do?”
“I know a guy who can get you on.”
“Oh! Uh– thanks! Uh– what do I owe you?”
Carlos shrugged. “Pay me back later.”
Beck looked confused. “Uh– okay. Uh– thanks!”
Carlos shook his head. “Get some sleep.”
It was late afternoon when Carlos knocked on the door again, tapped the key on the lock.
The door opened, was caught by the chain. He waited patiently while Beck padded to the door to let him in.
The kid was wearing tight black briefs and nothing else. He was no superhero, but he looked active, fit. He’d have no trouble finding work.
“You’re Damon Rodriguez. Here’s your boarding pass and your temporary ID.” Carlos handed it to him. “You’ve got about five hours. It’s a twenty minute walk to the spaceport. Launch is at 1:21 AM, doors close half an hour before. You’re the new guy. Show up early and check in, so they know you’re there. You forgot your ID at the hotel. Come back here, find it, don’t show up more than five minutes before doors.”
“Won’t that make them suspicious?”
“Port staff know you’re coming. It’s the other passengers you don’t want asking questions.”
“When you get upstairs, ask for Zizzy. She’ll know what to do with you.”
“Like, she’ll find me a job?”
“Yes, like a job.”
“Wow. Uh. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Carlos was still standing by the door. He smiled, sat down on the twin bed opposite Beck.
“It was nothing.”
“No it wasn’t. It would have taken me weeks to get here and find an agent without your help.”
Beck was standing in front of him now, a little close. Carlos looked up at him. “Really, it was nothing.”
“There has to be something I can do to thank you.”
Carlos made a noise in his throat as Beck leaned in. Beck kissed him, then, straddled his legs, hard prick pressing up against his inner thigh through the briefs. Carlos leaned in to the kiss, ran his hands up over Beck’s back and chest when it didn’t stop.
Lying together afterwards, his hand idly draped over Beck’s waist, Carlos felt him tense and sit up.
“Do you work for these guys or something? Is this some organized crime thing?”
“I don’t work for them. I travel around, sometimes I meet people, help them out.”
“But this isn’t some kind of Mafia thing, is it?”
“Only crime is getting up. After that it’s honest work.” The kid didn’t respond. Carlos sighed. “Look, there are rules about who can and can’t work, quotas. They can’t bring up enough people legally to do the work. But they don’t ask awkward questions if you’re already there. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
“What? Yeah, of course.”
“If you don’t like it, it’s… You’re not on the roster, if you want to come down, you’ve got to wait for an open seat, it may be months. And then you’ve got to fight all the other unlicensed suckers for it.”
“Yeah, I know. I read all about this online before I left home, I know what I’m getting into. I just didn’t know you were… you know, an agent. If I had known, I’d have asked you sooner.”
“Why do you do this? Do they pay you?”
“Yes.” Silence. “Why? Does that hurt you?”
“I dunno, I just…” He didn’t finish his sentence.
After a while Beck got up to use the bathroom, shut the door. Carlos wrapped the used condom in tissues and put it in the trash, washed his hands at the sink. He heard the shower start.
Some time later the shower stopped, the door opened, and Beck came out, toweling himself off. “What I was saying was, I just thought maybe you—”
Carlos’s bag was gone.
Carlos leaned on the roof of his car, eating a hamburger. He was parked, hazard lights flashing, in the middle of a dirt road at the top of a hill west of Las Cruces.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he wiped his hands on a napkin before checking. Beck was on board. Carlos wiped his mouth with the napkin and smiled — there was still a trace of him on his hands.
A half hour later, the eastern horizon erupted in the false dawn of ignition and the ground shook as a tiny wedge trailing flame and smoke arrowed up and over into the sky.
When the rocket was out of sight, Carlos got back in the car.
He turned it around, headed back to the highway and then north to Colorado.
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Copyright © 2014 Kellan Sparver. All rights reserved.
Cover image copyright © 2005 iStockphoto.com/pixeldigits. Used with permission. The image is used for illustrative purposes only. All people depicted are models, and no endorsement or association is intended or implied.