They called me a cab from the hospital to take me home, and had given me a big plastic bag with Abbot Northwestern on it to take home my paperwork, pills, and as I discovered later, Dina’s phone number and email address. She had not said any kind of good-bye and I chalked it up to “just one of those things”, but I had no plans to contact her. It would have been too weird.
For her, maybe, but definitely for me.
I was wearing hospital pants, along with my shoes and socks, and a new Abbot Northwestern t-shirt they gave me. My maroon hoodie, the true uniform of all software engineers, was freshly laundered and I was glad it survived the crash, especially since my big bald head needed the extra layer of insulation a hood provided.
I’d crashed in fall, but I was coming out of the hospital into the heart of the great Minnesota winter, and everything was white and grey. I hurried into the waiting taxi, feeling the attack of the cold, but the driver was a good sort and opened and closed the door for me as quickly as possible to retain the toasty heat inside.
I relaxed in the warmth, and as the driver moved back around to the driver’s side I took my last look at Abbot Northwestern, tried to find my window, and failed. It was one out of many, and from this side of the world, indistinguishable from any other. Despite all that, it had been a strange sort of home for awhile, a place where in many ways I had been born again.
To the nurses and doctors who took care of me, even though it was just their job, maybe especially because it was just their job, I’ll be forever grateful. There were many scenarios there where I could have bought it for good, but I didn’t. Now, like it or not, thanks to them, the world is stuck with me.
Despite the warmth, I had a few after-shivers, especially once the driver opened the door to get into the car. He had a smell, although not unpleasant, some kind of spice fragrance. Greased black hair, chestnut eyes, and pert mustache. He was dark-skinned, but as an ignorant American I didn’t know what part of Asia he was from just from looking. I suspected he would have a thick accent, and I’d spend a great deal of the trip home pretending I understood what he was telling me.
“Where you headed, my friend?” he asked, and his voice was pleasant, and he spoke perfect English. For my assumptions I felt like a judgmental asshole who should have remembered that he could read minds.
“Saint Louis Park. Off of Excelsior, near Meadowbrook. You know where that is?”
“Yes,” he said, and started to drive. “Usually they give me the address and I use GPS.”
“Do you prefer GPS?”
“Not really,” he said, and drove me off of the premises, and onto a for-real street going back into the for-real world. A world in which, after The Event, anything seemed possible. “Because I know the Twin Cities. I drove before GPS, so I do not need it, if they do like you did, and tell me a landmark. But I think some people think we’re stupid, you know?”
He was a driver of the chatty variety, it seemed. I didn’t mind, though, which is strange, because normally I’m a bit tongue-tied around people. But approaching close to the shores of death will help divest anyone of many of the fucks they used to give. “Not stupid,” I said. “Just foreign.”
He gave me a quick look and I raised my hand, “No offense intended. I don’t care about that, you know, just some people. That’s my theory on it, anyway.”
The vibe that filled the car just then, the driver's vibe, was the feeling of someone who is embarrassed and uncomfortable. The kind of discomfort where you suddenly don't even want to move, or turn your head and look around. I can turn off listening to what's in someone's head if I want. But vibes are something that people just broadcast. I can't ignore those.
Ugh. I mean, this is how I did it when I wasn’t in their heads. This was the old Lance, fucking it up. Apparently still the new Lance, who had not achieved any new powers of social aptitude beyond failing grade level while he was busy getting his superbrain.
Speaking of brains, in the awkward silence that followed I tuned into his brain, and got a better picture of the guy I was talking to. And suddenly things got a lot easier, and I stopped second-guessing myself.
“Sorry…Ramesh, right?” I said.
“You have good eyes,” he said, tapping his badge on the dash. He was thankful for the change of subject.
“Good lenses,” I said, tapping the new pair of oval wire glasses that insurance had replaced after my old ones got trashed in the accident. “But anyway, I’m sorry. I stepped in it.”
“Not at all,” he said, and smiled. “What you said is true. I look foreign, yes? But I have lived here for twenty years. But people judge appearances.”
I saw myself in the reflection of the glass as I looked out the window, and I winced. “I suppose they do. I’m not much to look at. I never was, really, but especially now.”
He glanced back at me in the rear-view mirror. “You mean those scars? I was going to ask about those, but I did not want to be rude.”
“It’s not rude. I guess I should get ready to be asked about it a lot. Everyone who looks at my face, it’s going to be one of the first things in their mind.”
“Well,” he pondered. “Maybe. But you do not know what is in their minds—”
I started to laugh, and he gave me a strange look. “No, I’m serious!” he said. “People will surprise you! Deep down, I think people are good.”
“Some people are,” I said. “But I think people forget what people are really like deep down, too.”
“Ah,” he said, and his mind actually considered the words I was saying, which impressed me. This was not just small talk for him, but an interesting conversation. I already knew, being in his mind, that he loved his job. I also knew that he drove a cab, but he also owned a limousine service. It gave me an idea.
I remember us turning onto highway 100, heading south, and the grey slush at the side of the highway as we sped south, in between rush hours. Tiny flakes of snow fell, but it was too cold to support much more than that. The corners of the windows were etched with frost, but the center of the window near me was fogged and condensing.
“So what do you think people are like, deep down?” he asked. “What are people forgetting?”
“I think I said that wrong. Not so much that they are forgetting, but that they aren’t thinking about it. But as for what people are really like…”
“Animals,” I said. “People are animals. Smart animals, yes, but we’re resting on top of all this other stuff that lets us move, and eat, and have sex, and poop.”
He laughed, eyes crinkling, and teeth gleaming so white I felt that I should go to the dentist. “I would think that we are more than just animals.”
“But we are,” I said. “Scientifically-speaking, just animals. Our brains are what set us apart, but there’s still a lot of the same stuff going on under the hood. Tribalism, distrust of that which is foreign, rage, lust, fear. Then for us humans there are the other urges and dark, repressed fantasies, and childhood traumas, and adult traumas, and the personal dissatisfactions with your life, and the personal grudges against others. That’s going on inside, deep down.”
“I suppose that is true,” he said, stroking his mustache. “I guess I had not thought about all of the negatives. I try to think positive.”
“But you have to think negative, too,” I argued. “Otherwise you’re just closing your eyes to what really exists. You can’t just pretend that people are nice on the inside, all the time, and that they never have thoughts that they keep from you, thoughts that form the very core of who they think they are.”
“Some people,” he said.
“All people,” I countered. “So I guess, yes, all people are good on the inside. But all people are bad on the inside, too.”
“Ahh,” he said. “Like the balance between creation and destruction. Inside of us all?”
I saw the concept in his mind, fully-formed before it came out of his mouth, so by the time he said it I was already nodding along. “I really like the way you said that, yeah.”
We rode in silence most of the rest of the way home, and once we got close I directed him from there. We stopped at the curb in front of my house, and I fished in the bag for my wallet. I knew I could have made him forget all about the fare, but he was a nice guy, and a welcome conversation on my return to the world. I took all the cash I had and gave it to him, it was easily six times the fare, and his eyes widened.
“Wow,” he said. “This is okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “But do you have a card? I might need another ride sometime.”
“Oh!” he said, and stuffed the money in the dash, and handed back a glossy business card with his picture on it, in a smart black suit. He was smiling in the sun next to gleaming black limousine. “Always Reddy Limousine Service” was printed across the top in lavender cursive.
“Thanks. I didn’t know you owned a limousine service,” I lied.
“I started it seven years ago. It was always a dream of mine.”
“I know,” I said, and coughed. “I mean, I know it must have been a struggle. Look, I was just in a bad car accident. It’s where I got all these scars and I just spent a few months getting pieced back together again. I’m not too excited to drive a car again any time soon. How much would it cost for a personal limo service?”
I thought he would laugh at my question, but he took me seriously and considered it. “For you I would do it for seventy-five dollars an hour. If you are talking about a stretch limousine. Four hundred and fifty for a daily rental. That’s seven hours.”
I was about to question him, but I was in his mind, and no he was not scamming me, and yes, these were friend prices. There were license fees and parking fees and fuel charges and vehicle maintenance that factored into all of that, which I had not considered. But there was also a certain amount of luxury tax. I also knew Ramesh Reddy’s bank balance for his business, and he was doing very well for himself right now. He didn’t even need to drive the cab, he just did it for fun. It made me feel a bit less guilty as I made my move.
“What if, because we’re such good friends,” I said, “You just let me have a limo and a driver, all the time, for free?”
I was quick on the heels of this one, my mind present for the shocks his mind was experiencing that my question presented him with. Incredulity, for a start, because no one in their right mind expects someone to seriously ask a question like that. I didn’t bother addressing things quite so much as a negotiation, as I did with Dina. I saw each objection as it arose from his subconscious, ready to be put into play, and I strangled it to death. Each one, swatted like a fly, never to reach his conscious mind. I experimented a bit, and felt my head pounding like a crowbar was hitting it, but I needed to be sure that he’d really follow through.
I started calling this “scripting” later on. It’s a programming term, but it is not at all dissimilar. I have even come up with a vocabulary for it, as it primarily involves manipulating three things: Impulses, Bans, and Suggestions. An impulse being an unthinking, unconsious reflex. A ban being something that a person just will not do under any circumstances short of the threat of death, and a suggestion being more of a conscious goal or instruction.
Everyone has an existing catalog of these, and I am well aware of them once I’m inside, believe me. But it turns out slotting in new ones is pretty easy, in terms of execution. But it always gives me a splitting headache, and by the time I was done with Ramesh in this case I was digging out a stained handkerchief from my bag and pressing it to my bleeding nose. But my work had paid off.
With a slightly glazed expression he smiled at me, reached out his hand, and we shook on it. “Of course, my friend,” he said. “You need never worry about a ride again, and you will always travel in style.”
Again, he chose the words, not me. That was all him. But it made me smile, and reassured me a bit, like I had not just completely broken his brain. What I had done was insure that he would have a continued impulse to help me, bans against ever charging me for service, or for even considering cancelling our arrangement, and a suggestion to have my car and driver waiting for me every morning.
“Thank you, Ramesh,” I said, and got out of the car.
“Call me, okay? I will have my wife cook you dinner!”
“I’ll do that,” I said, and I pulled back away from his mind as the door slammed shut, and he gave me a final wave from behind the window, and he drove away.
And that is the story of how I upgraded from a Mini to my own private limousine and chauffeur.