The bed was soaked in sweat. Covered up to his chin in blankets, and the afghan blanket knitted by his recently deceased Grandma (may God rest her soul), Teddy Simon, lay sick, and dying.
Last week the twelve-year-old was playing stick-ball out in front of his ten story Bronx apartment building with his friends Harold and Lenny. Teddy heard that Lenny came down with a bad case of the flu, or something bad, a few days later. Anyway, Lenny was taken to the hospital in one of those Ghostbusters cars, with bright lights and sirens, just to be safe. Soon afterwards, Teddy overheard his mom talking to someone on the phone—crying.
Teddy’s mother Sara watched over him. She dabbed his forehead with a cool compress every so often, sopping up his never ending perspiration, and prayed. She applied salve to the red blotches dotting his face which did more to pacify her motherly instincts than to help relieve his symptoms. Teddy tossed and turned until his body could no longer move, so he slept. That’s what she told herself—he was sleeping. The medicine their doctor prescribed wasn’t working. Nothing worked. Teddy was getting worse.
Sara Simon sat bundled up, shaking and sweating, and rocked nervously in the same chair she used to sit and nurse Teddy in when he was a baby. That made her smile. Smiling hurt her scared face.
She was afraid to turn on the TV or radio anymore. What was the point? The news was too upsetting. Her iphone fell silent a few days ago. She dialed everyone she knew: friends, co-workers, she even buzzed Emilio's Pizzeria, Teddy’s favorite, no one picked up.
There was something going around and people were dying—everywhere.
Sara rocked slowly. Her eyes were half open and staring at Teddy. She no longer noticed his chest moving, but it didn’t register. Her feet stopped moving as did the rocker.
Sara began to doze and dream. She and Teddy were at Morris Park, it was Saturday afternoon, he was riding the swings and kicking his legs going higher and higher. “Not too high, honey”, she said, smiling. “I won’t, Mom,” he said. Teddy giggled and kicked harder, going higher and higher.
Slumped over in her chair, Sara’s limp body fell to the floor. Sara stopped breathing.
* * *
Smoke bellowed from the black Pontiac GTO tearing up the Texas asphalt on Highway 40. The car left a trail of eye-catching exhaust like the black-tailed jackrabbits that left peppered tracks as they scampered across the desert sand.
Deputy Joe Bob McCormick put the throttle down on his Dodge Charger patrol car. This might be the middle-of-nowhere, he thought, but there’s still a speed limit to abide. This and other musings formed the basis of Sheriff Tyrone Pepper's teachings that molded Deputy Joe Bob in his image—was there a better one? Ya got yer folks that follow the law, then ya got yer idiots, Joe Bob, touted Sheriff Pepper. The sentiment rang true for Deputy McCormick. He was still green, but wouldn’t be denied a chance to step up a rung on the pecking ladder. He pressed harder on the throttle.
Closing in on the GTO, Joe Bob flicked on his cruiser’s flashing lights and sent the sirens screaming, which he figured always put the fear of the law into folks.
The GTO began to slow and weave erratically across the road, crossing the double-yellow line time and again, before finally veering right onto the dirt shoulder, kicking up dirt as thick as a dust devil.
Joe Bob followed the GTO onto the shoulder and turned off the ignition. The GTO sat idling, chugging, its tailpipe spewing smoke, before cutting its engine.
The lights from Joe Bob’s cruiser were still flashing, but he cut the sirens and got out, intimating or not the damn things grated on his nerves.
Once the smoke settled, Joe Bob knocked on the driver’s window motioning for it to be rolled down.
“Afternoon, may I please see your license and…” Joe Bob removed his aviator sunglasses, his mouth so wide it could’ve easily accommodated a slice of his Aunt Frannie's homemade pecan pie, and gasped.
The driver, a male as far as Joe Bob could figure, was rolling in sweat. His face, shaped with long wet hair, was red and covered randomly in painful looking spots ready to explode.
“You OK, mister?”
The driver’s head bounced spying the highway in front of him.
“I got a sick friend,” his head jerking backwards. “We’re in a hurry to get him to the hospital. A big hurry,” the driver slurred. The words came trickling out like the blood seeping from his friend’s forehead whose face was dotted in red blotches.
“What’s wrong with him?” Joe Bob leaned in, his face contorting like the time he smelled a dead raccoon underneath his cousin’s mobile home.
“Not sure. Flu or something, I guess. He ain’t moved for some time.”
The person next to the driver sneezed. The heavy spittle sprayed the inside of the windshield. The clear goo ran down onto the dashboard.
“Looks like we all got a touch of the something,” said the driver, wiping his forehead and suppressing a cough.
“Yeah, looks like it, but I still need to see your license and registration, sir.”
“We ain’t got time. Chad Ellis and Henry Bundell thought they had time, now they're dead.”
“I’ll get you on your way soon as I write up this ticket,” said Joe Bob, looking at the car’s riders. It was clear all four had something.
But first things first, Joe Bob, no one’s above the law. Write ‘em up. You could hear Sheriff Pepper’s voice speaking into Deputy Joe Bob’s ear.
Joe Bob flipped open his pad and got to writing as the car’s occupants continued coughing and hacking up phlegm.
Finished, Joe Bob leaned in and handed his pen to the driver, “please, sign here, and initialize here.”
The driver did as he was told, his hands shaking, then reared back and let off a huge sneeze that covered Joe Bob in saliva.
The driver wiped his nose with his sleeve, kicked the GTO and sped off.
Deputy Joe Bob McCormick grimaced and took out his handkerchief to wipe the snot off his face—for some reason it stung when he touched it.
* * *
Stewart Steadman hated nothing more than the oppressive heat of Las Vegas in July—except loosing at cards. He moved here years ago to feed his gambling habit, but instead met a girl named Julie who gambled on him. She dealt blackjack at the Golden Nugget and eventually got Stewart a job there working the craps tables. It wasn’t long before they got married at the Graceland Wedding Chapel right behind a drunk couple dressed up as Elvis and Priscilla.
Stewart left his shift early in mid-afternoon. Stepping outside the stifling heat threatened to burn off his face. I bet this is what hell feels like, he thought.
He wanted to stop off for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s mocha chocolate chunk ice cream before heading home; Julie had feverish cravings being nine months pregnant and about to drop anytime. Plus, he wouldn’t mind a refreshing scoop to take the edge off.
It’d be an easy jaunt to the store. The something was taking a deadly toll regardless of what precautions people took or what the government said. All the businesses along the Strip had tapered off dramatically, with the obvious exceptions of funeral homes, mortuaries and places like the Casket Keepers next to Circus Circus; they were all working twenty-four seven.
Today was different. The decibel level ranked as high as a Deep Purple concert. Stewart heard the roars. When he turned the corner onto Las Vegas Blvd, he saw why: hordes of people.
Where’d they all come from?
The disorganized mass of people streamed as far as he could see.
“What’s happening?! What’s going on?!” screamed Stewart, squeezing through the crowd.
With fists raised, people chanted and screamed obscenities, demanding they get their chance. GET OUTTA MY WAY! I WANT ONE! Came the screams as the crowd pushed forward.
Fighting the throng, Stewart finally reached the front of the chaos where he could see a stage. It was large and overlooked the Strip like a dam holding back the masses. On it stood a lone figure dressed in denim jeans and jacket. He was a tall, formidable figure whose age was unknowing. He had hair past his shoulders that blew in the desert breeze. His bulk alluded to a sense of strength. He cackled as he spoke.
At the base of the platform was a ticket machine people were clamoring to get to.
What kind of Las Vegas gimmick is this?
“What’s going on?” asked Stewart.
“Get to the back of the line and wait your turn,” the indignant man replied.
The microphone next to the figure on stage came alive.
“Is this on?” the figure tapped on the microphone. The feedback answered.
“HaHa, yes, it is on. Welcome, my friends, let me introduce myself, my name is Randall Flagg and I’m pleased to me you. How are we doing on this glorious day?” he asked, cupping his ear as he leaned out over the stage.
The crowd roared.
“Although it does feel a bit chilly. Don’t you think?” He said, laughing and wrapping his arms around his shoulders.
What the…? Thought Stewart.
“I’m so glad you all could come. Who would like a ticket?”
The crowd surged forward crushing those in front.
“Now, now…let’s not push, shall we? Some of you will get tickets today. You’re the lucky ones,” said Flagg. His eyes narrowing and grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“But if you don’t…well…Captain Trips is waiting for the rest of you. Or…if you think you’ll live long enough you could try guessing where I might pop up next to hand out tickets. Maybe it’ll be in London, or Tokyo, or will it be Paris? Oui?”
Stewart looked at one man’s ticket. His jaw dropped when he read it. It had a number and in blood red letters it read GOOD FOR TRADING ONE SOUL.
Flagg stood on the stage, hands on his hips, and laughed an eerie laugh. The devilish figure looked familiar. And his name, Randall Flagg, Stewart knew that name!
One by one, each person stepped forward, sobbing as they picked a ticket out of the machine. Each one hoping there’d be a ticket left in the machine for them. Each time the machine rang loudly come one, come all, and save your soul.
“How can this be? That can’t be him,” mumbled Stewart.
Stewart asked one of the lucky ones, “Why are you crying?”
“Because I’m going to live. But it’s costing me my soul,” Sobbed the man.
“Trading your soul to live? Wait! No, no, no…that ticket, that man—Flagg—he’s not real! I mean, he’s not a real person! He’s fiction!”
Feeling a tap on his shoulder, Stewart Steadman turned around. It was Randall Flagg.
“HaHa, you’re not trying to talk this nice gentleman out of taking a trip with me now are you?”
“Trip?” asked Stewart, trembling.
“Yes…he and everyone else with a ticket will take a boat ride with me down the river Styx to Hades. It’s my hometown,” said Flagg.
“You can’t. This isn’t possible. I mean, you’re not real. You’re a work of fiction.”
“I know I’m fictional character, thought up by some writer named King from Maine, but you have to admit that all this death is certainly real. But I’m offering some of you a way out. It’s really quite simple. Get a ticket from my machine and redeem it to save your life in exchange for giving your soul TO ME! If not, Captain Trips is waiting.”
Stewart couldn’t argue that millions, billions, in fact, were dying, but how could this be happening? A fictional character is teleported from a book into reality?
With half the world’s population dead, and millions dying daily, and Captain Trips resistant to antibodies or vaccines, the pandemic would continue until it reached its logical conclusion. All because of Randall Flagg.
Stewart’s parents had died along with everyone else he knew. Now, all he could think about was his wife Julie and his son who would be born into this terminal madness at any moment. He had to do something.
“I know what you’re thinking, Stewart. Yes, I know your name. I know everything. You’re thinking that if Trashcan Man, with his nuclear warhead in tow, came from fiction into the real world like I have, that you could get him to blow this town to smithereens, and me with it, just like in the book. Isn’t it a pity that’s not the case?”
What to do?
“You know what to do, Stewart. The only thing you can do to save your life, the life of your wife and the life of your unborn son. So, do it!”
Sadly, Stewart knew. He pledged solemn vows to Julie on their wedding day, and failed. He was supposed to protect his family and provide for them, and failed in those promises too. But none of that mattered now. There was only one thing that mattered.
“Please, Mr. Flagg, may I have three tickets? Please?”