Looking back, taking a spur-of-the-moment holiday vacation probably wasn't the most brilliant idea ever to misfire in the synapses of my cerebral lobe, but it had been a helluva week. I'd been buried up to my shorthairs in work for months, under constant pressure from my supervisor to stay late and pull all nighters to get it all done, even though the rest of the office kept banker hours. Then this week, the bastard took credit for saving our largest account a bundle in taxes, even though I was the one who'd slaved over it for the past month while he kept golf tee times and long, liquid lunches.
There was a letter from the management company of my apartment building informing me they were going condo. I had to bail my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend's car out of the impound lot where it'd been towed because of unpaid parking tickets. In his case, I wouldn't have minded fronting him the money, but I'd found out a few hours after paying up that he gotten the tickets while cheating on me with everything that had a cock, with the possible exception of his yappy Shih Tzu. In addition, I found out he'd been helping himself to the money in my bank account on a regular basis. In short, it'd been a seriously shitty week.
There are times in life when a man needs to buckle down and work hard, and times when he just has to say, "Fuck it." This, I decided, was a fuck it week if ever there was one. By week's end, I'd had all I could take, and had a much overdo mini-meltdown. I quit my job, packed up my stuff, and moved into a cheap hotel room, leaving my ex, the apartment and everything in it, including the yappy dog, behind.
Drastic, I know, but it was either that, or buy a bullet and rent a gun. Not that suicide was ever an option--I'm far too fond of breathing----but shooting my ex's dick off was a tempting proposition. Since I didn't want to spend the next ten years or so in prison, I opted for moving out.
My job was no great loss, either. I was an accountant, a damned fine one, and had a few offers from other firms on the table. My bank account might be light now, but I wouldn't be without an income for long. Plus, my boss was a dick, and I'd been wanting to leave for a while. My meltdown was only the impetus I'd been needing.
It was bitterly cold when I left the apartment, a few fat snowflakes already drifting down. The wind cut through my jacket like a whip, lashing my skin. It was the beginning of a promised storm predicted to dump several inches by morning. The gray sky overhead matched my mood perfectly.
The heat wasn't working very well, but at least the motel room was a few degrees warmer than the outside air. As I sat there in my cheap, orange-and-brown room, staring at the stained carpet, smelling that odd, moldy-disinfectant smell you can only find in the best fourth and fifth rate motels, I came to a realization.
My life, such as it was, sucked, and I needed a change. If I didn't get away, relax a little, forget my troubles, I was going to lose what few brain cells I still had rattling around in my skull.
A quick check of my bank account told me I couldn't afford anything fancy. In fact, I swear the ATM laughed as it spit out the receipt with my balance on it. My ex had nearly wiped me out. Still, I supposed I could spare a little cash for a quick getaway before I took another job, especially if I was frugal and lived on the free condiment bar at the fast food place across the street.
Somewhere warm would be ideal, but since airfare was out of the question--unless Santa was running a free taxi-sleigh service--I'd have to make do with a local destination. The big ski lodges in the nearby mountains were far too pricy for my current pocketbook. I might be able to rent one of the cabins out by the lake, although what I was going to do out there in the middle of winter besides freeze my ass off, or set myself on fire trying to light the fireplace, was beyond me.
It was on the way back to my motel room from the bank that I saw the advertisement in a storefront window that promised "Exotic Destinations for Pennies a Day!"
Perfect! Pennies were all I had to spend.
The storefront belonged to a company called the Time Again Travel Agency. I walked into a barebones office that held one desk, one computer, one folding chair, and one man so old he looked like a raisin left out in the sun too long. His rheumy eyes blinked up at me, as if surprised a living, breathing customer had walked in the door.
"Where to?" he asked, as his skeletal fingers stabbed the keys of his ancient Macintosh. I thought I saw a small puff of dust coming off the keyboard, but chalked it up to my imagination. The computer beeped and groaned, wheezing worse than the old man did.
"I'm interested in taking a vacation over the holiday. Uh, what do you have that's cheap?" I asked, figuring it was best to cut to the chase and be honest. No sense in hearing about glamorous destinations or five-star cruises when all I could afford was a dinghy tied to a rotten pier with a scenic view of a toxic waste dump. "Really cheap." I felt it important to clarify my finances. "Like, hobo-cheap."
He punched the keys a few times. "I've got a trip to Babylon on special this month. Six days, seven nights, all inclusive. Gotta warn you, kid--it ain't exactly like staying at the Ritz, but it's the cheapest thing on the books."
Babylon? Did that place still exist? I tried to remember, but couldn't. I thought it might be somewhere in the Middle East, but I wasn't sure. It sounded warm and exotic--far too exotic for my pocketbook, at any rate. "How much?" I asked doubtfully.
"As cheap as it gets for the vacation of a lifetime." He named a figure, which I had to ask him to repeat three times since it sounded much too good to be true.
"Vacation of a lifetime, huh? How is it this one's so inexpensive?" I asked, although I was already pulling my checkbook out of my pocket. "What's the catch?"
"Ain't no catch. Told you it wasn't much. You get what you pay for, as they say."
"Yeah, I've heard that." I'd probably be flying on one of those third rate airlines that are only one-step above cargo planes, wedged in between crates of vegetables and a small goat herd. Once in Babylon, I'd most likely find myself sleeping in some goat herder's barn, with no indoor plumbing, fighting snakes and scorpions for the use of the outhouse.
Oh, stop trying to talk yourself out of it, I thought. It'll be an adventure. "I'll take it. It's my Christmas present to me."
"Name?" he asked in his bored, rusty, old-man voice.
He keyed my information into the computer, including my credit card number, and an honest-to-Christ dot matrix printer slowly spit out a receipt, which he tore off and handed to me. I could hear his bones crackling as he stood up and motioned for me to follow him behind a patched black curtain hanging crookedly on a shower curtain rod at the back of the room.
Passport photo, I thought. Did travel agents do that for you? I had no idea, but it seemed likely. Good thing, too--I needed a passport. I hadn't been out of the country in...well, ever. Suddenly, I was excited. I was going on an adventure. It was so unlike me! I usually spent every day at work, and weekends curled up on the couch watching old movies. I never did anything spur of the moment--well, aside from quit my job and toss everything in my life to the curb. It was a day of firsts, it seemed.
Behind the curtain was the weirdest looking camera I'd ever seen. For a storefront in the worst part of town that held a secondhand desk, a primeval computer system, and was run by a man who looked a month older than Moses, the camera seemed impossibly high-tech. It was a large, gleaming cube of metal, sitting atop a sturdy tripod. The panel behind it looked as complicated as any jet cockpit, complete with dozens of blinking lights, LCD readouts, buttons, and toggle switches.
I positioned myself in front of the wall across from the camera and smiled, hoping that, considering the complexity of the camera, the photo would turn out better than the one on my driver's license.
"Remember," the old man said, flipping a few switches on the control panel, "Six days, seven nights, then you'd better be back at the exact spot where you arrived or you'll get stuck there. Don't be late--you only get one shot at coming home. Time waits for no man."
"Huh?" I asked, feeling my eyebrows shoot up to my hairline. "One shot? Stuck? What the hell are you talking about?" Red flags began shooting up in my mind like a crimson forest. I was about to step forward to stop the whole process until I could get him to explain, when suddenly there was a burst of bright light that temporarily blinded me. All I could see were swirling colors and dancing stars.
My passport photo is going to look like a fucking mug shot, I thought, squeezing my burning, watering eyes shut against the intensity of the light.