Dave was in a good mood as he drove down Mount Mercy following a six day fishing/camping/hiking trip at a remote cabin. The lack of communication with the outside world had done wonders for his overall attitude. It’d annoyed him how much TV he’d been watching. He’d done plenty of fishing on a small boat, especially the night of the fullest moon that he’d seen in his entire life that lit up the lake as bright as if it had been day. The fish were jumping that night.
He was happy he’d took Frank Higgins’ offer to use the cabin.
Now, as Dave drove east, the mountains began to flatten out, the pine trees thinned and suburbia bloomed all around him like a surprise: the blinking LCD lightscape of his new home.
The town looked the same, and he grinned with satisfaction, whenever he left for too long he always expected to come back and find it completely different. His friends were obsessed with the end of the world. The joke he had told himself over and over again while fishing, was that on his return, the town would be completely gone. A smoldering crater. People sure can influence you.
When he saw the sign for Burgerland ahead, he pulled in. Six days of fresh campfire fish had been great, but, truth be told, he was ready for some “crap food”, before his Wednesday night dart league.
At the drive-thru he got a double cheeseburger Mega-Meal with fries and a milk shake. He ate it in the parking lot with the radio off because he was trying to keep his cool, concentrating before competition.
It was really, the biggest thing he looked forward to. He couldn’t think of a single person who knew his birthday or his middle name besides the girl who did payroll at the marina. He couldn’t remember her name either. They were even.
Sure, he thought, the guys from the league were weirdos and gave him a definite ‘odd vibe’, and he wasn’t too hot on the idea of throwing darts in the empty shell of what had been Wicker World, but, after a year, it was still a new town for him and he was happy at least to have made some acquaintances, finally.
Never much of a dart guy, he’d been sucked in. They made him feel so welcome. “Need another beer, champ?” It was probably mostly that they suck at darts, he thought. Maybe they even let me win. Yeah, get real. No way.
It was true, Dave was well ahead in first place. His name right on top of the leader chalkboard. Pepsi guzzling, bug eyed Frank, was his closest competition, but whatever, Frank really stood no chance.
At Dinosaur Liquor, Dave grabbed a 6 pack, surprised not to see Becky Higgins working. His ritual was to pop in before the league and joke around with her/brag about how he was gonna level her husband Frank in the evening’s competition. Instead, he bought the beer from a somber grey haired woman with a large mole, drove the rest of the way through town to Wicker World.
Seeing that he was short two dollars cash on the purchase, Dave almost took his New Balances off, to dip into the $250 he always carried with him, but, he didn’t. Instead, he paid with his debit card. A Visa with a very beautiful painting of the planet Jupiter.
Dave, was stunned to see that the Wicker World plaza was full of flashing police lights, cops coming in and out of the store.
A stretcher was pushed into the back of an ambulance.
Dave parked his car and staggered up to the yellow police tape.
A cop grabbed his shoulder.
“Sir, you need to turn around and go back to your car.”
“That’s my dart league …”
“It’s a police matter, you can’t be here.”
Dave walked back to his Camry and watched from the driver’s seat as more ambulances came off the highway, stopping directly in front of Wicker World.
As more and more stretchers came out of the store with bodies under white sheets, Dave put the car in gear and slowly drove back to his apartment, numb for answers.
The bell rang, Dave Milo opened his door with trepidation. A young blonde anchor-woman from channel 4 and a heavy set camera man greeted him.
Dave was hiding from the world, the incessant phone calls, the strange accusations from the local newspaper, the theories about him that all his co-workers and neighbors had formed. Even Jose. He had to set the record straight.
A televised interview was his best shot.
“Mr. Milo? So nice to finally meet you face to face.”
“Come in,” he said. She shook his hand enthusiastically, sliding past him, into his home. The camera man could care less.
“I was expecting UPS,” Dave said, “I had to order new sneakers, ’cause … the police took mine.”
They’d been orange New Balances, just like what all the other members of the dart league had worn when it all ended.
“That was the first clue that Frank was a little odd. The orange sneakers … He bought everybody sneakers,” Dave said.
He offered a seat to the reporter on a wooden chair from his kitchen. The camera man set up his gear. At her urging, he plopped down on the couch.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said.
They’d talked in length over the telephone about his side of the story, and she’d made him very comfortable that the TV interview would be, ‘this conversation we’re having now, all over again, only we’ll be talking face to face, just me and you.’
The camera started rolling; the interview began.
“Mr. Milo, start from the beginning. How’d you come to Abbington?”
“For work,” he said. “Trix’s marina needed a forklift operator. I took the job.”
“What was your impression of the town.”
“I dunno. Normal. A normal town. Strip malls. Lots of residential developments. The people seemed nice.”
“What was nice about them?”
“Oh, they wave when they walk their dogs and stuff. My neighbor Jose once dragged his hose across the street and washed my car for me ’cause birds had crapped all over it. Stuff like that. People were just nice.”
“How did you first find out about ‘The Bullseye Squad’?”
“I was bored in town and saw a flier hanging up at Fried Paradise. A dart league. I’d never been much for organized sports but it seemed fun. So, I went.”
“And what happened?”
“That first time?”
“Sure, start there,” she said.
“Well, I went and I got drunk and I won,” Dave said. “First time throwing darts and I won. It was great. Fifty bucks they gave me. Next week I went back and I came in second place. That was thirty dollars. I was hooked.”
“They weren’t very good? Were they letting you win.”
Dave got very offended by that question, “Oh, they were pretty damn good. I mean, sure, they seemed distracted and all that, but they were just as good as any other darters that weren’t tied up in a doomsday cult.”
“Describe the doomsday cult side of the dart league.”
“Well, I guess the name says it all. Doomsday cult. They thought the world was ending and they had to get off Earth before it was too late. Before the regular weekly tournament would happen, we would all line up, twenty two of us and we’d throw our darts at exactly the same time and try to hit every slice of the dartboard, including the bullseye. Frank Higgins thought if we did that, we’d go to Jupiter.”
“He said our spirits would leave our bodies and fly there on a psychic jumbo jet.”
“If all the darts landed correctly covering the whole board.”
“Investigators say that the board was found that way. Bodies all laying on the ground. They’d poisoned themselves, with soda.”
“They were big Pepsi people. That was the weirdest part.”
“Do you think they went to Jupiter? Their spirits.”
“I have no idea.”
“What’s on Jupiter?”
“You’d have to ask Frank, but he’s gone. Along with the rest of them.”
“You didn’t believe this would work?”
“Not in the slightest. I just liked darts.”
“Members gave their houses and cars and drained bank accounts and gave it to Higgins …”
“I had no idea.”
“Why did they give him their savings and deeds and …”
He interrupted, “I have no idea.”
“But you gave them your car. You gave them the deed to a piece of property outside Slip River.”
“The car was an old junker and I got to write the donation off on my taxes. Frank said the car was going to ‘Cars for Tots’. The property? It was an investment I was interested in making. Someone had illegally dumped hundreds of thousands of old paint cans and toilets and TVs and … It wasn’t worth peanuts. A couple of the guys from the league talked me into signing it over to them cause they were going to clean it up with heavy equipment and make a shelter that could …”
“Survive the apocalypse that Frank and the others believed was coming, if they didn’t get off Earth in time.”
“None of this scared you off?”
“It was weird, but … It’s hard to explain. I usually won the dart games. It made me feel good. I think at the time it was all I had in my life that felt good.”
“What about the money that was found in everyone’s sneakers? $250? What was it for?”
“I have no idea.”
“You didn’t do that?”
“Why would I? I just liked darts. That’s it. End of all the controversy.”
“Describe what happened on that fateful night, April 31st … What made you decide not to go to your dart league? All told, forty two people lost their lives that night, men, women and children. All member of the league, except, you. Why weren’t you there?”
“I went on vacation.”
“I went fishing up in Mount Mercy. That’s it. That’s all that happened. I caught a bunch of fish. I read a couple books. I watched the moon rise over the lake and it was beautiful–the opposite of what happened here that night. I’m still shocked, and heartbroken, I’d just like to move on though. I’d like to get on with my life and forget about what happened.”
The interview went on like that for a little while longer, the woman seemed to be trying to catch Dave in small traps, making him retell his version of the story in various ways, but when it was all over, nothing had been exposed.
He was the lone survivor. That was all there was to it.
The weeks went by. The seasons changed. He continued to operate the forklift at the marina. He continued to eat at Burgerland twice a week. During Christmas, he took a second job, over night stocking at Food Universe. He continued to await for further instructions from Frank Higgins, curious if they would ever come. He continued to carry $225 in his shoes to cover the passage on the psychic jet, for a very long time, wondering how things would work out.
He was lonely. He couldn’t win anymore. It all seemed so strange and illusive; and who knows?