Satellite Down


Michael Shou-Yung Shum

Michael Shou-Yung Shum is a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State. His stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Weave, The Writer’s Chronicle, Defunct, and Bartleby Snopes, among others. He resides in Corvallis, Oregon, with a senior cat.

Jesse Nguyen drove from Seattle to Las Vegas in the middle of March every year with the same goal in mind: to make enough money off college basketball that he could return the following spring. This year marked the fifth such occasion. Indeed, two out of the previous four sojourns he’d won amounts vast enough that he returned to Seattle in a newer vehicle than the one in which he’d left. Last year, however, he’d barely scraped past. It all came down to the last play in a second-round game between Duke and Canisius; Trajan Langdon sank a meaningless three at the buzzer to raise the Blue Devils’ final margin of victory from 18 to 21. Around him, the sportsbook erupted in response to Duke’s unlikely cover. Jesse, however, sat quietly, trembling with the profound relief of being in the black for another year. The amount of his wager had been twenty-five dimes, his entire bankroll.

The ticket—the largest he’d ever held—cashed for $47,750. He’d wired the amount to his bank account in Seattle, checked out of his room at the Las Vegas Hilton, and was two hours into the twenty-hour drive home before the late games went final. As in previous years, he returned to a tidy studio apartment in Bellevue and bided his time until the tournament rolled around again. He golfed, read books, and went on a few dates through an on-line site. He dabbled in horses and poker but never played high. He reported a meager income of $8,000 on his tax return, as was his practice. His budget was strict: Jesse allowed himself $2,500 per month, rent and health insurance inclusive. Over the course of the intervening year, these expenses whittled his bankroll to $16,300. This money he’d cashed out from his bank that morning, one-hundred and sixty-three hundred-dollar bills, bundled in stacks of twenty-five, in a black Ralph Lauren duffel bag in the back seat.

Jesse was making good time this particular drive. The skies were clear and the roads open, the radar detector was clean and he bombed the A6 down the I-84 corridor with a bag of cash and no responsibilities to speak of. He wasn’t the type of person who was too deluded to laugh at himself; Jesse knew that his lifestyle was ridiculous and unsustainable in the long-term. But he was twenty-seven years old. Time remained on his side only as long as he kept cashing winners.

Eventually, the skies dimmed on the prairie and the air grew cool as evening descended in the West. Near the juncture of I-84 and US-93, Jesse pulled his A6 into the Chevron in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, for his second gas stop. The only other vehicle in the lot was a black rig with no cargo at one of the diesel pumps. A yellow happy-face was emblazoned on the passenger side door of the rig, with a bullet hole above the eyes from which fell drips of stylized blood. No one was in the cab.

Jesse switched off the engine and got out of the car. He stretched luxuriously. The night sky was cloudless and lit to the heavens by a map of stars. Closer, Jesse saw the lights of two planes headed south, perhaps bound for McCarran International. He smiled at the thought that he might encounter some of those very passengers over the course of the next week at the Race and Sports Books in Caesar’s and the Hilton. Pleasantly diverted, Jesse swiped his card and waited for the pump to flow. Then a scratchy voice came over the P.A.:

“The satellites are down, sir. You’ll have to pay cash inside.”

Jesse muttered an epithet. He replaced the nozzle and took out his billfold and opened it. Inside were two twenties, four ones and his lucky two-dollar bill. It was just enough to fill the A6’s eighteen-gallon tank, a fact which relieved Jesse. For a moment, he’d envisioned having to dip into the duffel bag of dough: the six bands—$2,500 each—and the thirteen loose hundreds, all new bank notes, the edges crisp as razors. Now he knew he could get to Nevada on what he had in his pocket. If he had to, he would dip into the bag then. But not before.

Still, the fact that the satellites were down disturbed Jesse. Living in Bellevue, so close to the Microsoft campus, he was not used to being disconnected from the rest of the world. As he walked toward the station, he was straying farther from the A6 and the bag of dough on the back seat. He found himself giving the diesel pumps a wide berth. The black rig—its lack of cargo, the mark on the door, its abandoned appearance—only added to his growing unease.

“How come the satellites are down?” he asked the haggard woman behind the counter as he paid for the gas.

“There isn’t a cloud in the sky.”

“Who knows?” she replied. “The last time it went down for thirteen hours.” She leaned closer and Jesse could smell the tobacco on her breath. “That gal in the rig has been waiting over an hour.”

Jesse turned around discreetly and confirmed that no one else was in the store.

The haggard woman understood the look. “She’s sleeping in the cab, I think,” she said and shrugged.

Somehow it was a little more frightening to know that there was someone in the rig, and a woman at that. Jesse didn’t want to imagine what she looked like. He took his change, his bottle of water, his gum, and the bag of chips and exited the store. The chill had grown sharp and he shivered. There was about one hundred feet between the door and the safety of his A6, and in between was the black rig with no cargo and the happy face emblazoned on the doors.

Jesse walked quickly. His shoes made no noise as far as he could tell, even in the prairie silence. He stole a glance at the cab as he approached and saw no one. Jesse couldn’t perfectly define why he felt an unreasoning dread as he passed the rig. No doubt it had something to do with the fact that he had a bag full of dough in his back seat and out here, in the vastness of the West, he felt suddenly vulnerable.

When he got back to the A6, Jesse got in and closed the door. He reclined in the seat and sighed. The duffel bag was still there. Everything was okay. He was safe. It was time to get the hell out of Idaho. Jesse turned the key and the 2.8 liter 6-cylinder engine leapt to life. It was only when the indicator on the dash began to blink that Jesse realized he had forgotten why he had stopped in Twin Falls in the first place. To fill the eighteen-gallon tank.

Grudgingly, Jesse turned off the engine and got out of the car again. He walked to the pump side, annoyed that his sense of security had been so short-lived. He inserted the nozzle and pressed 93 Octane and watched the rotary-style numbers increase slowly toward forty dollars, like the gauges of old-fashioned slot machines.

He was at $27.32 when he heard the door of the cab slam. He quickly looked from the pump to the rig and in that span of time, it seemed the woman had moved far faster than he would have imagined. She was very tall. At least six feet. Her age was indiscernible. She was wearing all denim, and her dark hair was pulled back in a severe widow’s peak, ending in a braid. From the meager lamp-light, Jesse could see she wore no make-up and her features were sharp and unkind.

“Hello, there,” Jesse said hopefully. He glanced back at the number—$28.93—and then back at her.

She was about ten feet away from the A6. “Are the satellites back up?” she asked. A thin coil of vapor rose from her lips as she spoke.

“Um, not as far as I know,” Jesse said. Was it really cold enough that he could see her breath? “I had to use cash.”

She uttered something indecipherable—a curse—and then spat into the darkness. It was quiet enough for Jesse to hear her phlegm land. “You’d think in this day and age you could use an ATM or a cell phone anywhere,” she said.

The pump was up to $31.67.

“I hear you,” Jesse said.

“Do you think you can spot me forty bucks?” the woman asked. “I can make Boise on that much and for certain, they’ll have the satellites working there.”

“Hmmm,” Jesse said. He was looking at the pump now—$33.02—and not at her. “I don’t know if I would be comfortable with that.”

“I’ll take down your number. I’ll call you as soon as I hit Boise.”
Jesse didn’t say anything. The pump was at $33.97. It was getting close enough to stop.

“In fact, I’ll give you my number. And my address.”

“I’ve got a two-dollar bill,” Jesse said. “That’s all I’ve got in my wallet. It’s my lucky bill, but I’ll give it to you.”

“Two dollars won’t get me a hundred yards,” the woman said. She was close enough to the A6 to look into it. “Washington plates. You look like you’re traveling. You must have a twenty stashed somewhere. That can get me to the next town. I’m trying to get home tonight, mister.”

For a second, Jesse considered the possibility of giving the woman one of the hundreds in the bag, just to get her to leave. If he had any spare cash, it would’ve been a foregone conclusion. Or he could take a bill and break it inside. Give her a twenty. But he’d already told her he only had two dollars. And there wasn’t just one bill in the car. There was over sixteen grand. The satellites were down. The tank was full. The pump was at $36.77 and climbing.

“Sorry,” Jesse said finally. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?”

“No,” Jesse repeated. “I don’t think so.”

“Well,” the woman said. “As long as you’re thinking, maybe I’ll give you something else to think about.” She turned and began to walk with long purposeful strides back toward the rig, giving every appearance that she was going to retrieve something from the cab.

Both the tone of her comment and the aggressive nature of her stride signaled to Jesse that he should leave immediately. He replaced the nozzle—there were still over two dollars of gas left on the gauge—screwed in the gas cap, opened the passenger side door, got in and slammed it shut, scrambled over the gearshift into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition and gunned it. He spun the car in a half-moon to get it pointed in the right direction, and as he screeched off, he saw in the rear-view mirror that the woman was standing beside the rig, facing him, and she seemed inhumanly tall. She was watching him. Gripped in her hands was something long and menacing. But then Jesse was too far off to tell if it was a shotgun, or a baseball bat. Or a club, studded with nails.

“Jesus Christ!” Jesse allowed himself to exclaim once he was fixed southbound on US-93. He grabbed his phone with the intention of calling someone—*911 would certainly be reasonable—but when he glanced at the face, there were no bars. The satellites were down. He set the phone down on the passenger seat and tried to relax. Inhale through the nose, he told himself. Exhale through the mouth. Drive straight and true.

Fifteen miles passed in this fashion, before his phone finally chirped to life. He checked it again, calmer now, and queued text messages from the score services he subscribed to began pouring in. At first, Jesse was glad that everything was back on-line. Then he remembered that everything would be back on-line in Twin Falls, Idaho, as well. That meant the woman at the station could get gas. She would be hitting the road any moment now. Jesse wondered if he’d told her he was heading south, but he couldn’t recall their conversation in any detail. Was she crazy enough to come after him?

Jesse had no idea. He watched his rear-view mirror for a hundred miles. Presently, he eased the seat back, and turned on the radio. The digital tuner cycled through until it caught a distant signal across the desert. Sports radio, talking NCAA. Jesse focused on the words until they gained their old meaning. Duke and St. Joe’s in the first round. Duke was favored by twenty-three. The tip was in six hours, at 12:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Jesse knew that soon enough, when he reached Vegas, he would be placing a very large bet on Duke once again, in the amount of $16,300. This time, though, his doubt was colored by a new fear. This time might be the last time—the end of the line—with no last-second shot to save him. And there would be one final trip back across the desert, where the tall woman roamed, waiting patiently on him and his A6.

© Michael Shou-Yung Shum

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