Sliding into homeplate at the last possible moment (well, not the last possible, but still fairly late in the day), here is my story for the December 2021 Flash Fiction Draw. As you’ll recall, our prompt was for a mystery, set in a highway tollbooth, and featuring a ray gun. I played fast and loose with the particulars, as I tend to.
And we end on a bit of a cliffhanger. Maybe I’ll pick up the thread in a future flash fiction draw story, but those won’t be created by me. For 2022, I’m handing the reins to Jeff Baker, aka Mike Mayak, who’ll be posting them on his blog, as well as his Facebook page and Twitter. Be sure to follow him in the various places and get ready to write. Thanks for picking up the baton, Jeff!
And now, without further ado…
My New Roommate
Curt worked at a tollbooth on the turnpike. He said it was a great job, low-key, no stress. But every morning before he left for work, he put on a shoulder holster and drops what looked like a ray gun into it. Who needs a ray gun if they’re working at a highway tollbooth?
One day, I decided to follow him.
He took the bus to work, which is really kind of funny considering he spent his day taking money from people who drive cars. He didn’t own one. Fortunately, I did. It was a piece of crap, but it ran well enough that I could keep up with a bus.
I remembered the first time I met him, when he answered the ad I placed on Craigslist for a roommate. He had decent references and didn’t seem like a serial killer or an axe murderer. Not that I had ever met either a serial killer or an axe murderer before. I would imagine that, as long as you weren’t ever going to be one of their intended victims, that might work out okay? Unless they tied up the bathroom with disposing of bodies. I guess that would be an issue.
But anyway, Curt wasn’t either of those things. He dressed nice, had a good credit history, and he said he didn’t like loud music, didn’t snore, and didn’t sleepwalk. (There was this one roommate this one time, and he did all three of those things. Sometimes all at the same time. It didn’t work out.)
Curt, though, he had a firm handshake and looked me directly in the eye, although not in an intimidating or salacious way. (Which I guess would also be intimidating.)
I pulled into a gas station parking lot just off the turnpike after the Curt got off the bus. He walked toward the squat government building adjacent to the toll plaza, but then he did a strange thing. He kept walking. Where was he going?
Naturally, I followed. It wasn’t a part of town I was familiar with, and soon we were in a fairly sketchy-looking neighborhood. A lot of boarded up windows and doors with bars on them. A motel that looked like it might be out of business, judging from the algae-stained empty pool out front, but whose neon sign advertised vacancies. A couple sex shops and a burger place that looked like it might sell its double cheeseburgers with a side of botulism.
Curt entered the motel parking lot. He moved with purpose and familiarity, as if he knew exactly where he was going and had in fact gone there many times. What was going on?
I couldn’t pull into the motel parking lot without him clocking me, so I parked around the corner. At least my crappy car blended in with the surroundings. Still, I locked it.
I approached the motel from the side. The cinderblock wall flaked white paint and had no windows. I felt vaguely criminal as I edged toward the corner and peered around toward the back. A few scraggly bushes provided some cover, which was good because Curt was hardly ten yards away, and he was aiming his ray gun at the head of a very frightened looking man in an alien costume.
Was Curt actually an actor? Had I stumbled on the set for a B-grade movie? I could understand why he posed as a tollboth attendant. At least it was steady, reliable work compared to acting.
The man in the alien costume raised his arms—arms that were far too thin for any person I’d ever met—and screeched something that sounded like a record needle being scratched across the surface of an album.
Curt grunted in response. “Look, pal. I don’t care if your entire bloodline is in danger. You can’t stay here. This place isn’t any safer. If these people—“
He waved the ray gun randomly in my direction, and the alien man glanced the same way. When he saw me, he screeched again.
Suddenly, Curt’s gun was leveled at me. “What the hell? What are you doing here?”
The alien man screeched again. Curt waved his free hand toward him. “Okay, okay, just get back inside, will you? And don’t even think about going anywhere. We’ll discuss this in a minute.”
As the alien man skittered up the concrete stairwell to the second floor—and by this time, it was pretty obvious that his getup was no costume—Curt approached me slowly, gun still raised. “Okay, this is awkward. Did you follow me?”
“Um.” At some point, I must have raised my hands, but it was still a surprise to see them in the air on either side of my face. “Would you mind not aiming that at me?”
Curt looked down at his hand as if surprised that he had a ray gun at all, much less pointed in my direction. He holstered it.
“Sorry. I totally would not have shot you.”
“It’s real, isn’t it?” I looked up at the cinderblock stairwell. “And so was that alien, wasn’t it?”
Judging from the expression on his face, Curt thought about denying all of it. Then he sighed and put his hands in his hips, glancing at the ground between us.
“Well, this is awkward.”
“If you’re not a tollbooth worker on the turnpike, what do you really do?”
“Oh, I do, but the toll plaza’s a front for my real job.”
“I’m a recruiter.”
For a second, neither of us said anything, and I clenched my fists in frustration. “Come on, spit it out. It was easier getting your credit history.”
Curt flung his hands up. “You. I’m recruiting you, you idiot.”
Idiot? I crossed my arms. “What do you need an idiot for?”
Again with the sigh. “You’re not an idiot. In fact, we think you’d be perfect for the job.”
“What job? Is this some ‘Men in Black’-level shit? Are you gonna wipe my memory next?”
He rolled his eyes. “Those damn movies. No, but it does involve aliens. Are you interested? I know you hate your job. You’ve complained about it enough.”
Well, he wasn’t wrong. In the short time since he moved in, my job had gone from barely tolerable to downright unbearable. I groused about it whenever someone was around to listen. Which was usually Curt.
“What’s the job?” I asked.
He smiled and pulled out a slender, wand-like baton. “It’s easier if I show you.”
I squinted at it as he twisted the base of the baton and the end started to glow. “I was right. This is ‘Men in Black’ stuff.”
Curt gave me duck face and reached for my arm. “Just hold still.”
The wand flared, and the parking lot, the motel, and the rest of the city vanished around us.
And that was when things got really weird.