The early morning traffic at the intersection of 43rd and Lowry hummed along in its usual drone-like fashion, vehicles of all makes and colors whipping by, distinct reminders to the dreary, tired pedestrians that the reality of another workday was upon them. There were a lot of pedestrians indeed. So many, in fact, that it was quite easy for just about anyone to blend in. The energetic rays of the morning sun bounced brightly off the towering office buildings that hovered over the bustling intersection. Channel 8 was predicting a beautiful day, with temperatures in the mid-to-low seventies, with a light breeze. There was a small chance of showers later in the afternoon, but nobody seemed too concerned about it. After all, it was only a little rain; a far cry from the foot of snow that the poor bastards in the upper Midwest were dealing with. Car horns blared in a strangely melodic fashion, while people chatted away, their voices and words coming and going in the gentle morning wind. The northeast corner of the intersection was always the liveliest, mostly because of the doughnut and bagel shop that had opened just a few months ago. The aromatic combination of freshly-baked pastries and roasted coffee floated among the line of customers, eager for that first sip of liquid energy. People walked and people talked; life proceeded just as it did every single day.
Nobody noticed Phil as he shuffled past First Federal Bank, his expression silent and still as he approached the intersection. “Phil” wasn’t even his name; not anymore. Everything about a person changed when they crossed over; when they went into the Vapors, as he so eloquently thought of it. It had taken him awhile to adjust to things, probably longer than it did most. A variety of factors went into one’s position or purpose in the Vapors. There were things about a person’s existence unobservable to the naked eye, as well as impervious to any desperate attempt by science to measure or study them. One could never fully understand until they entered the Vapors. Phil embraced his purpose in the Vapors.
All roads lead to the Vapors
This came from the Master himself.
Phil’s admiration of the Master was toppled only by his fear of him. That was to be expected. Everyone in the Vapors feared the Master.
Phil entered the crosswalk, his thoughts occupied with sharp, fleeting images of his own voyage to the Vapors: the emotional breakdown that accompanied his bankruptcy; the cold, startling touch of the gun barrel to his temple; the strange sensation of watching himself lying in his own blood in the corner of his apartment, taking his last futile breath. At times, other images were present, but they were hazy and disjointed. But that fatal shot; he would never forget that one.
Phil reached into his black slacks and retrieved a cigarette.
No more cancer worries, he thought to himself. That was certainly one perk to being in the Vapors.
He lit the end of it and took in a long, exhaustive drag, letting the smoke trail slowly out of his mouth. A few rebellious ashes blew onto his black t-shirt, which he brushed off, grinning as he did so. It wouldn’t be long now. He had been through this enough of times to where the process was becoming more familiar to him. The changes in the environment were always the definitive signs. It was only a matter of time before the Master had his rightful bounty. Phil was proud to be the one bringing the Master his bounty on this particular day.
All roads lead to the Vapors
That has a really nice ring to it, Phil thought to himself.
He reached the end of the crosswalk and stood patiently on the corner, carefully observing everything around him. The taxis and buses were still moving in abundance, but were lagging a bit, as if being paused on and off like a movie scene. The chatter and laughter of the pedestrians were still intact, but had also slowed down, their deeper voice tones giving them an almost robotic quality. The morning sun itself had even changed, its once vibrant shine becoming dull, uninspired reflections in the office windows. This was always the most exciting part. The worlds were crossing over into each other, the boundary lines evaporating little by little. The most wonderful part about all of this was that Phil was the only one who could see it happening. In a few short moments the celebration and festivities in the Vapors would begin. The Master would get what was rightfully his. Everybody had a time and a place and the intersection of 43rd and Lowry was no exception.
Phil took another drag on his cigarette and glanced at the entrance doors to the Walgreens he was standing in front of, looking for anything out of place. A fortyish-looking woman dropped her bag on the way out, spilling the contents all over the pavement. He watched amusingly as tubes of mascara and other small items rolled around on the ground. Another woman leaving the store stopped to help with the retrieval process.
Not there, he thought. It’s gonna come from somewhere else.
Phil could feel the anticipation firing up inside of him. He knew his duty to the Master and knew it well, but he never knew quite how things were going to play out until they actually happened. Others in the Vapors had told him that that would change in time, as he proved his devotion by collecting bounty for the Master. You just had to put your time in they had said. Some even speculated that the Master could delegate one with the power to choose the method for creating and gathering bounty. The possibilities were infinite and Phil was going to give his entire purpose to the Master and the Vapors.
A few feet away was a man in a tattered old sweater sitting on what appeared to be a barstool, playing a guitar, a green rectangular box on the ground in front of him for pedestrian donations. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Across the way, business at the doughnut and bagel shop appeared to be booming, the group of starving customers at least twice the size of what it was when the morning first started. City buses loaded and unloaded people like they were trays of cookies, while the ambitious taxis aggressively snatched up business- men and women, suitcases and umbrellas in hand, and scurried them off to work.
The images were returning, clearer and more graphic than before. Phil could see himself hunched over on the couch in his apartment, a guttural moan escaping his jaws as the realization that he had just lost over seven hundred thousand dollars in savings set in. He would never forget the feeling of nausea in that moment; it had nearly suffocated him. The nausea came and then the desperation, hopelessness, and the emptiness.
He was out of options.
The image of the apartment couch slowly dissolved and soon took on the twisted shape of the image from earlier. He was lying on his side in the corner of the apartment, a gun lying on the floor nearby, gazing on like a casual observer. He could hear (faintly) the sounds of pounding on his door and the calls and yells from the other tenants. It was odd. Reflecting on the image now, he could almost smell and taste his own blood…
The cigarette died out under the weight of his black leather dress shoe. Everything around him was shifting. Something big was about to happen.
It was almost time to collect for the Master.
As if on command from another authority, his head turned slowly to the left, his eyes locked tightly on the front of a white trailer truck, a little more than a block away from the intersection. There was something about the truck. Something that didn’t feel quite right. This had happened before. When his focus changed like that, it was a signal for preparation. It was just like the yacht incident, one of the very first times he had collected for the Master. He remembered how everyone’s voice had become hollow and distant and how the color of the water had faded right before the accident in which all thirty-seven people had drowned. What a day that had been.
He had to be ready. The Master wanted things done a particular way. He wasn’t going to fuck things up, that was for sure. If he did, the Master would be ever so merciless. No, he would be sure to do his duty and do it right. He served an important purpose in the Vapors and felt quite privileged to be entrusted with the responsibility he was given.
His eyes followed the truck as it approached the intersection. It was about a block away when things took a turn. He watched as the truck picked up speed and suddenly swerved into the other lane, smashing into the side of a taxi. The gut-wrenching sound of glass shattering and steel colliding echoed through the air as the first of many shrieks of horror began. The truck, unphased by the collision, roared into the second lane, narrowly missing an oncoming Kia, and shot up onto the curb, instantly crushing two early morning joggers between the trailer and the side of a department store building. Even though it was some distance away Phil could clearly hear the crackling sounds of their bodies being obliterated by the weight of the trailer. More terrified screams filled the air as onlookers watched the truck smash through an outdoor patio set outside of Casso’s Steakhouse, scattering the mangled, bloodied bodies of several patrons and their eight-dollar-special breakfast buffet trays all over historic Lowry Street. An older man, who was standing a few feet away from Phil reading a newspaper, vomited all over himself at the horrific scene that was unfolding. At this point other oncoming vehicles started slamming into the taxi that the truck initially hit, causing an instant chain reaction of accidents, one after the other, the sickening sounds of the vehicles totaling one another adding to the already morbid circumstances. There was so much screaming from various bystanders by this time that Phil couldn’t even pinpoint where it was all coming from.
It wasn’t over yet.
After demolishing the outside patio of Casso’s Steakhouse the truck geared along, headed for the cluster of the once-jovial coffee lovers socializing in front of the doughnut and bagel shop. Like the traditional deer in the headlights, they were frozen in place, their eyes wide with terror as the unmitigated speed of the truck quickly eliminated any chance of running away or dodging the impact. Everything was happening all at once: people screamed, a bespectacled businessman near Phil fainted and split his head open on the curb, vehicles continued rear-ending each other, a random dog ran across the path of the truck and was swiftly splattered across the front of it. Phil hadn’t witnessed this much action at a scene in a while.
All roads lead to the Vapors
The finale of the gruesome show was about to occur as the rebellious truck closed in on the coffee fanatics. Phil managed to catch a brief glimpse of the driver, twisting and jerking around in his seat. The final wave of desperate howls emanated from the coffee crowd as the truck plowed into the first of many unfortunate souls. Phil sat on the curb and calmly lit a cigarette as the carnage reached its peak. There would be a lot of souls to collect in this one. His thoughts wandered to the throne room, hidden within one of the twenty valleys of the Vapors. Only in that room could the souls of the deceased see the Master, the Reaper himself. It would take a little time, but they would all come to understand their new purpose, as Phil himself had. If the living only knew what awaited them. They wouldn’t bother wasting their time weeping into those stainless steel or mahogany boxes, their lonely, depressed tears falling onto the faces of the dead like little raindrops. What the hell was the purpose? What did it accomplish?
The worlds were now completely merged, the dense, pale fog of the Vapors encompassing the intersection of 43rd and Lowry like a heavy winter blanket, the only real traces of light coming from the police cruisers and ambulances. Phil stood from the curb and walked to the middle of the intersection, stepping over the corpse of a young man who had fallen from the passenger seat of one of the vehicles, his upper torso battered and mangled from the accident, his face unrecognizable from the injuries. The wispy, nearly transparent beings slowly glided towards Phil in a deep silence, the magnetic force of the Vapors impossible to resist. As they inched closer, he could feel his energy expanding, his macabre power maturing with every passing second. Like the chorus of an old, familiar song, the words came to him again.
All roads lead to the Vapors
The bounty was collected. The Reaper was going to be happy.
Mr. Sisto notes:
“My name is Louis Sisto and I have been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a
personal hobby. Some of my work has been published on websites and online magazines such
as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.”