Disappearing Act

by Clayton L. Stephens

 

My job was about thirty-five miles away. There was never any traffic on my route so it always took about forty-five minutes to get there. At first, I didn’t mind the commute. It gave me a chance to listen to the news or to hear a favorite album… but after a few months it became extremely monotonous.

Day after day, the same forty-five minute drive. I ran out of music, got tired of the news, and began to just zone out in a daydream. When I would wake up it would feel as if I’d been driving for an indeterminate amount of time, without paying any attention at all to the road.

Along the way to work, there was a mountain that I had to cross over. The road over the mountain was long and winding, and when you reached the top, you could look down onto the farms and houses in the valley below. You had to watch your brakes as you crossed over the summit and began the steep descent. I always focused somewhat intensely on that part of the drive, but I guess after a while I even got used to that stretch.

One day, after I’d held my job for about six months, I zoned out again. During my morning drive I lost myself in another daydream and a strange occurrence happened. When I snapped out of my daze, I realized that I had passed the mountain, yet I had no recollection of it whatsoever. How is that possible, I thought. How could I traverse the mountain without paying any attention at all to my driving? Then, I looked at the time; I was ten minutes away from work and I’d only been driving for fifteen…

I didn’t understand why or how I could shave twenty minutes off my route to work. Mathematically, it would only have been possible if I were traveling at 150 miles an hour for the whole trip. But being that I drove a Volkswagen Fox, that wasn’t a possibility. Perhaps, I thought, something was wrong with the clock in my car, or I read the time wrong when I left in the morning, but the “time warp” kept happening. More and more, I kept losing myself in daydreams and when I woke up somehow I would have traveled three quarters of the way to work (a distance that should have taken at least thirty minutes) in ten or fifteen minutes. In the next month, the “time warp” occurred three more times. In the month after that, it happened twelve times.

Quickly, what should have been a forty-five minute drive became a twenty-five minute routine. Though I lacked comprehension, I knew what was happening was real, and I began to have faith that it would work. I set the alarm clock fifteen minutes later, left with only a half an hour to get to work, and I never had any problems. The more I believed in the “time warp,” the more relaxed I was about getting to work on time. With every passing day, it became easier to put the stress of being on time out of my mind. Without stress, it was easier to slip into another daydream, and with the daydreams came the “time warp.”

* * * * *

I worked in a large corporate building, located in a quiet business park just north of Santa Barbara. Every morning when I stepped out of my car, I looked up at my place of business in awe. I couldn’t imagine how people did it, how they built fifty story buildings that appeared to be made up of nothing but dark reflective glass. The blue logo at the top floor said McMurphy Technologies. Well, Mr. McMurphy must have had quite a bit more ingenuity than I, because it was all I could do just to walk through those glass double doors (the logo was also emblazoned on them in white), grab myself a cup of black tasteless coffee and head to my cubicle to push papers for eight hours. The work itself was even more monotonous then the drive, and one thing I hated was monotony. I wanted desperately to be free from the bondage of the 9 to 5, but there was something besides work that kept me coming back each day, something that put a smile on my face.

Her name was Rhonda, and she was fine. Her hair flowed over her shoulders in long thick strands of wavy brown that matched her eyes. Her skin was tan and she had a smile that could always make my knees wobble. The clothes she wore always walked the fine line between sexy and demure. My favorite dress was the red one she liked to wear that cut off just above the knees and a few inches below the soft valley of her neckline.

Rhonda worked in the cubicle across from me, and her job was a little bit more intricate than mine. She was one of three people in charge of marketing McMurphy technologies to hospitals and contractors—anyone who might use lasers (that was our product). Boy, could she sell. She made me want to buy a laser, just listening to her on the phone. I’d hear her through the thin fabric partition that separated us, while I zoned out in my own cubicle. Her voice was soft and alluring. I’d listen until I heard…

Clickety clack… Clickety clack. That was the sound of Eric Wilson’s fingers tapping on the top frame of my partition. “How are the contracts for the Municipal Hospital coming?” he’d ask, or some other mundane question that really meant, get back to work before I tell on you for slacking. Nothing like a middle management boss with nothing to do but harass the people like Rhonda and I who actually made this place run.

Anyway, one day after Wilson got done hounding me, Rhonda whispered to me through the thin blue fabric. “He’s a jerk,” she said. “Don’t listen to him.” Her words put a smile on my face, and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to communicate with her through a cubicle anymore. I stood up and pushed my blue four-wheeled chair back towards the wall. Then, I stepped out of my sanctuary and took about three paces to where I could look at Rhonda.

She looked up from her desk and smiled at me as I stood there quietly at the entrance to her cubicle. “How ya doin’, Arty?” she asked.

“I’m fine. How are you, Rhonda?”

“Fiiine,” she replied, stretching the word out and tilting her head as if to ask, why are you standing there?

Then I asked her, “Would you like to go to lunch with me today?”

“Sure,” she replied with a friendly smile.

Rhonda and I had lunch together at a little café in Goleta. It went beautifully. We talked about everything from the weather to our dreams. Hers was to just make enough money to travel to exotic places. She wanted to see the Pyramids, and the Sistine Chapel.

“But I could see myself living in Spain,” she said. “Maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, but it seems so magical.”

When it was my turn to share, I told her about all my dreams to get out of my cubicle and become a musician or an author, some kind of artist. I wanted to travel the world too and soak up as many places and experiences I could, then pour them back out into my songs or stories.

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

“’Cuz I can’t write and I can’t sing,” I said, with a subtle shrug of my shoulders.

Then I told her how all I really wanted was a beautiful woman at my side. The flirtation made her laugh a coquettish laugh. Then she touched my hand gently and smiled at me while batting her eyes.

* * * * *

The next morning I got up early because I had a stop to make before work. I put on my fake beard, beanie and sunglasses and headed over to the Solvang branch of the Bank of America. I parked down the street from the bank, out of range of any security cameras. It was 8:20 a.m., when I took a toy gun (one from the eighties that looked oh so real) out of my glove compartment and went inside to make a withdrawal.

I approached the counter, pulled the gun out of the inside pocket of my coat and pointed it at the clerk.

“Everyone put your hands up and keep them up,” I yelled. Then, I looked down at the clerk’s nametag and saw that her name was Betsy. “Betsy here is going to find me fifty thousand dollars. If anybody drops their hands before Betsy gives me the money, I’m going to redecorate the walls with her head. Any questions?”

Everyone shook their heads “no” and kept their hands up, and Betsy went about her task. “Don’t go trippin’ any secret alarms now Betsy. If the cops show up too soon, it’s your ass, understand?”

Betsy nodded yes, and acquired my funds quickly and painlessly. She brought over a bag full of money, but I told her I wanted it in a briefcase. Betsy was very helpful. She did as I asked without any crying or stammering. I thanked her kindly for a job well done, and went on my way. But before I left, I yelled, “Nobody leaves this bank for five minutes. If I see anyone walk outside, I’m poppin’ a cap in ’em!”

This gave me time to stuff my beard, beanie and sunglasses into my pockets, and morph into a typical businessman walking to his car.

The freeway was only about a block away, and soon as I turned onto the southbound on ramp, I began to think about Rhonda. I thought about running away with her, traveling the world for years, and then maybe settling down in Spain where we’d buy a villa overlooking the ocean. We’d raise our kids in a world where our kids wouldn’t have to worry about gangs or drugs and Rhonda and I wouldn’t have to worry about being slaves to the 9 to 5. I got lost deep in my daydream, and when I woke up, I was pulling into the parking lot at work, and a little early no less. I punched in at 8:50 am.

* * * * *

As the days went on, Rhonda and I began to get closer. I’d spend less and less time working and more and more time flirting. Sometimes, when Wilson was standing over her, bothering her about work, I’d call her number.

She would tell Wilson to hold on as she reached for the phone, and he’d stand there impatiently as she answered, “Hello.”

I’d whisper something like, “Hello, beautiful. What time you getting off work?”

“Well, sir, I don’t know… the numbers look good. Maybe we can get you five.”

“That sounds good to me. I can’t wait to get you alone.”

“Is the offer still the same?”

At this point, Wilson would have had enough standing and waiting. He felt as if he should never have to stand and wait for someone else, so he’d take off, and Rhonda could stop pretending to talk business.

“Yes. Dinner for two at Ristorante di Tuscani, followed by a night of wine and dancing.”

“Sounds marvelous. Pick me up at six honey, and don’t for get to wear that Calvin Klein cologne.”

When Rhonda and I went out, it always felt like the world belonged to us—as if all the land was a movie set and we were the stars. They could have made a movie about us; we had the kind of romance that, up until we went out, I’d only read about. It was flowers and candy, dinner and dancing, boat rides on the lake, anything the cheesiest supermarket novelist could dream up. But it was more. Rhonda and I related on something that no one else seemed to understand. We both felt like caged birds, and work was our cage. It wasn’t steel bars, but our jobs that kept us confined to a small radius, only getting the chance to fly free every now and then when our masters opened the door.

We both had a great passion for this world… Hers was for its wonders and mine for its art, but we both felt as if we were missing out on so very much.

* * * * *

By October, I had the “time warp” down to an exact science. All you had to do was daydream, and if your body knew the route, which mine did, it was as if you could fly. I was getting to work faster and faster; I robbed two more banks, and pocketed another fifty thousand dollars each time. After the third robbery, the cops questioned me for the first time. Two detectives showed up at my job one day. Eric Wilson asked how he could help them, and he was all too happy to show them to my desk.

One was a tall, older black man with a scraggly half-white beard. He walked with a limp as he approached my desk. His partner was a younger white detective with wavy brown hair. His face was clean-shaven and he had a bit of a belly. They both wore the same ugly brown pants and white button-down shirts, but the older one had a black overcoat and the other’s was beige. “Sir, we’d just like to ask you a few questions,” said the older detective; I believe his badge said Jones.

“What’s this about?” I asked innocently.

“We’d like to talk to you about the recent robberies in Lompoc and Solvang,” Jones said.

I got up from my desk and allowed them to lead the way to the coffee room where they intended to question me. Apparently, there was a witness that saw a man with a briefcase get into a Volkswagen Fox near the crime scene, and they said he sped off pretty fast. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. After all, I had an airtight alibi…

We entered the break room and I offered the detectives a seat. Then I went over to the coffee maker to pour myself a cup. I offered the detectives some as well. Jones passed, but his partner, Detective Regal, was more than happy to sample our fine brew.

“So what can I do for you, gentlemen?” I asked as I handed Regal his cup and took a seat at the other end of the white plastic table.

“Well, I’m sure you’re aware that the robbery of a federal bank is a very serious matter,” Jones said. “We have a witness that links your car to the crime scene, license plate and all. Now, you have no criminal record, but unless you can prove to us that you were somewhere else and that witness made a mistake, we’re going to charge you.”

I just shrugged my shoulders and smiled a leisurely smile. Detective Regal smiled back at me and raised his coffee cup a little to show he appreciated the taste. “Well, what time was the robbery?” I asked Detective Jones.

“8:35 a.m., yesterday,” he replied.

“Well, then that’s that… I believe it was 8:48 when I punched in yesterday. That would mean I got from Lompoc to Goleta in thirteen minutes.”

Jones and Regal looked at each other with uncertainty. They thought they had their guy, but in light of this new information, they weren’t sure how to proceed. “Do you have your punch card?” Jones asked.

“Yes, detective, it’s at my desk, and you can verify the time on the company’s computer system.”

Jones motioned with his head for Regal to go check the timecard. He did so, leaving Jones and I alone in the coffee room. “So, how ’bout this weather?” I asked.

“It’s Santa Barbara. The weather never changes,” Jones replied. He was all business until his partner came back and exonerated my name.

“It all checks out,” Regal said, as he let himself back in. At that, Jones stood up, his large frame looming down over us. “Well, sorry for the inconvenience,” he said. “We just have to check all our leads.”

“I understand,” I replied as they left. Regal took his coffee cup with him and bowed slightly at the neck once more to me. I reciprocated and shut the door behind them.

When I was sure the detectives were out of range, I began to dance around the break room and laugh, “Hahahahahah!” I got off scott free, and I doubted Jones and Regal would show their faces again… Rhonda and I were going to have everything we ever dreamed of.

* * * * *

A week later, I went to pick up Rhonda for another date. She and I usually spent a good deal of time talking about all the things we longed to experience, but on this particular evening, we skipped the talk altogether.

She opened the door for me, and before I could even say a word, she had pulled me inside. We started kissing deeply and passionately. We tore at each other’s clothes, ripping them off our bodies until they lay in a heap on the living room floor. Before I knew it, she’d led me into the bedroom where we began to make love for the first time.

I was no virgin, but no experience I’d ever had compared to the first time with Rhonda. We were intertwined for hours before we finally stopped out of sheer exhaustion. We lay in bed together, her head resting on my chest, and my arm beneath her neck. She rubbed her hand up and down my stomach as we listened to the silence.

It was at that point I decided to tell her my secret…

“There’s something you should know,” I said softly.

Rhonda just looked up at me with her eyes as if to ask, what?

“Well,” I continued. “Do you remember when those detectives came to question me?”

“Yeah, about the bank robberies,” Rhonda replied curiously.

“Yes, about the bank robberies.”

“Well…”

“Well, what if I told you that I really had robbed those banks?”

“Hahahaha! C’mon… what are you kidding me?” Rhonda asked incredulously, but my facial expression told her I most definitely was not.

“But how, you said you punched in only thirteen minutes after the robbery and the location of the robbery was at least forty-five minutes away.”

“Have you ever zoned out in a car while you were driving someplace you’d never been before…” I went on to explain to her about the “time warp”—what it was and how I’d learned to control it. She was still reluctant to believe me… so I proved it to her.

The next morning, we met up at my place, and we raced to work. We left at 8:00 a.m., and forty-five minutes later I greeted Rhonda at the office with a cup of coffee and a punch card that read 8:20. I just shook my head at her and said, “I can’t believe you made me get to work forty minutes early.”

From then on she believed me, but it still took some work to convince her to go along with what I was about to ask her.

We met again on the weekend. Saturday turned out to be a lovely beach day, so I took Rhonda for a picnic at the Gaviota State Reserve. It was beautiful, but chilly enough to keep the tourists away. We had the beach all to ourselves.

Rhonda and I found a place in the sand close enough to the water where we could look up and down the coast for what seemed like an endless stretch. We could see the odd shape of the beach, which made some spots face south rather than west, and we could see blue waveless water shimmering out into eternity. I carried a small basket, from which I pulled a bottle of wine. I poured Rhonda a glass and we sat down in the sand.

“All this,” I said while looking deep into Rhonda soft brown eyes, “is nothing… If you stay with me, I can offer you the world. We can see the ocean from the shores of Spain, and we wouldn’t have to wait for the weekend.”

“We can go to Spain?” Rhonda asked curiously. I could tell she was wearing down. Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be hard. She wanted to be free from work too, and she wanted us to be together.

“Yes, Rhonda, and we can we stay as long as you like. I told you, we’ll get a villa overlooking the ocean. I’ll even take you to the bullfight.”

“NOOOOOO!” she exclaimed coquettishly, and smiling all the while. “I don’t want to see the bullfights. I can’t stand to see all the death.”

“Ok then,” I replied. “You can see Dali’s art museum with me.”

“Ok,” she replied, her smile now even wider.

“Do you mean you’ll go?” I asked.

Rhonda turned her head and batted her eyes, pretending it was a hard decision to make. But quickly, she turned back to me. Her expression had changed into one of passion and desire. Her mouth became a soft red palette and here eyes burned right through me as she said, “Of course, I’ll go with you. Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.”

I leaned into her and we kissed. All the world stopped turning as our tongues swirled round in a symbiotic dance. When we parted, her eyes burned through me again, as she asked, “When do we leave?”

I looked at her intently and replied, “I just need one more big score. Then we’ll have enough so that we’ll never want for money again… I’ll do it Friday, when the banks have the most cash lying around. We’ll leave on Saturday.”

* * * * *

Friday came and I awoke early. I knew that all my dreams were so close to coming true. I headed to the Lompoc Branch of Washington Mutual, where I was to make my final withdrawal. As per my routine, I parked about a block away from any security cameras on the bank’s outer wall. I put on my beanie, beard and sunglasses and pulled the toy gun from the glove compartment.

Everything went as planned. The teller didn’t want any problems and neither did anyone else behind the counter. They put their hands up and didn’t move a muscle while Andrea went in the back and collected two hundred thousand dollars. She found a nice leather briefcase (by then I had developed quite a collection of briefcases) for the money and passed it across the counter. I took hold of the handle and turned to walk out, pointing my plastic gun at the customers and guards. “Stay where you are!” I yelled at the two gentlemen standing off to the left. Then I faced forward and yelled at the guard, “Don’t you try anything funny old man!” Then I turned to the left…

I should have noticed him there. I guess I just became too complacent. It was Detective Jones. He was there in plain clothes waiting to make a transaction just like the rest of the customers. The only difference was that he had a gun. It must have been in a shoulder holster beneath his jacket. As I turned towards him pointing my gun, he was pointing his. He fired quickly, not knowing that mine was only a toy, and shot me right in the chest.

As my gun fell to the floor and my white shirt suddenly dampened into a dark crimson red, all I could do was look at Detective Jones with big stunned eyes. Then, all the dreams I had for Rhonda and I flashed before my eyes, and I grasped at a last straw of hope…

I turned and ran. Jones ran after me, but he was old and whatever caused his limp also kept him from running very fast. I made it to my car, which was parked across the street facing the freeway on ramp. I saw Jones standing on the parallel sidewalk, his gun drawn. I thought he’d try to shoot the tires, but there was too much traffic from the opposite direction. It blocked off any shot he had. The light turned green and I peeled out. I quickly shifted up the gears into fourth and floored it. The car screeched as I rocketed onto the freeway, trying to outrun death.

After about a minute, I heard the loud whine of sirens approaching behind me. I looked in the mirror and saw their flashing lights speeding towards me. But the road opened up in front of me, and I cleared my mind of all my worries—the police cars behind me and the wound in my chest. I thought only of Rhonda and all the things we would do together. Quickly I became lost in another daydream and the “time warp” began.

I wonder what the policemen must have thought as they trailed me. All their eyes would have been peeled on me, locked in and focused, and then… Gone. Gone into some other dimension, some other plane of existence. But this time, I didn’t make it through to the other side.

They never found my car or my body, and Rhonda still waits for me to this day.

 

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