Did you see my social media post last week, declaring I was ending the year with a short story acceptance? Well, it happened. The story in question is called BEHIND THIS WALL OF SCREAMS and it’s a cosmic horror tale. The basic plot is that a ride share driver deals with someone casting Lovecraftian magic from their back seat and what happens as a result. It’s a paranoia laden piece you won’t want to miss, and was inspired by my side gig as a ride-share driver.
Now, as many of you know, I drive Uber and LYFT cos indy writers… we’ll say they struggle. Ride share driving pays me well, I can work when I want to-which my muse loves- and most important – the wife is happy. I still DJ, but the Pandemic is putting a pinch on that (my choice).
So I write and I drive… and in the last few months I’ve had some doozies for riders in my car- rock stars, political figures, TV personalities, and so forth. I’ve dealt with guys beating their girls, drunks, stanky asses, and people I can only categorize as straight up bonkers.
There are things you can do to prevent this. Back around Halloween I got a rider, a recent immigrant, who thought it was his mission to play his African minister’s sermon on speakerphone in my back seat. I dealt with it for the 7 minutes he was in my car, and 1-starred him. I did this so I’d never get him again, at least that’s the theory with rideshare, which doesn’t prevent them from making alternate accounts.
But last night? My rider won a fucking chicken dinner and a set of steak knives in the Batshit Crazy Ride Share Passenger Hall of Fame.
I shut my app off at 4:30 and was going to go home. I had a fruitful day and was happy. Time to work on the new book, I said. Then I saw a long ride alert on LYFT, 266 miles. I say to myself, “NYC, Tommy? Ooooo. That’s a good payday.” So I accept the ride.
At the time I didn’t know this, but my choice to do so would become a 2-edged sword. On one hand I made a boatload of dough. On the other hand… um… I got a story to tell?
Meet “Ros.” Ros wasn’t her real name, but it was the name used on the app. Right from the get go she was weird. She’s wearing a Circle K employee T-Shirt, and I pick her up from a Circle K, so this doesn’t look odd to me, but she she just hopped in my car with her face mask over her chin and left it there. My internal monologue name for her morphed into Chin… Diaper.
“Hi Ros. Going to New York I see? Car trouble?” I say before accepting her in my car. She says “Yes,” and I realized she was on the phone with an insurance company. So I didn’t disturb her further, we can deal with that after her call I decide. So I tank up…
The first thing I realize, and it should be noted, is her English was PERFECT and her verbiage was impressive, without any use of slang. She had a squeaky voice, reminiscent of Wanda Sykes sucking helium.
I finished filling the tank and swipe to start the ride. Next, I learn it’s not NYC. It’s deep in the heart of Pennsyltucky. Brian fucking Keene country-chock full of shadows and skeletal tree limbs beckoning of evil things in the darkness.
And then I find she has not one, but two phones.
For three hours of the four hour and twenty-two minutes, she called multiple insurance companies, looking for one that gives long tows for roadside assistance. She is using one insurance company to pay for her LYFT rides. Yes, I said RIDES. During this three hour period she is bouncing between phones, talking with insurance companies and towing companies, having them pay for her LYFT rides. Basically, she’s running a barely-legal insurance scam to get a used car towed from Pennsyltucky to upstate NY.
Here’s an example of the verbal shell game she’s playing in my back seat: Geico tells her they can’t do the tow, but can send a guy with gas. She tells the Geico rep to send a person with gasoline. Then she calls the towing company to ask if they can bring a tow truck for the gas fill. The guy tells her it was just a gas fill, and they don’t typically bring a tow truck to those calls. She then leaves it for them to come back the next day with a wrecker.
At one point she cusses and I get my first indication of where this is going, when she apologizes to Jesus for swearing. I ignore this and she goes on to the next call.
She calls State Farm. She calls Progressive. She calls Farmers. She goes through complete insurance applications on each call and when they tell her they only go 15 miles for a roadside tow, she moves on to the next one.
Two hours in, she finally goes through Liberty Mutual and gets a 200 mile free tow on roadside when the sales rep upsells her on renter’s insurance, and buys the policies. It takes her another hour to sort this out. And again, this entire time she’s talking like she’s a customer service pro, her voice is almost news announcer quality, albeit somewhat cute and squeaky. I was almost admiring her ability to run this scam.
And then Jesus took the wheel.
Well, not precisely my steering wheel, but He did start driving me crazy. I flash back to last fall when this woman calls her (and these are her words, not mine) “Sisters in Christ.”
A woman, I’ll call her “Sister Barbie,” who sounds like a camp counselor at a Kingdom Bound festival, answers.
Immediately I notice a few things about my rider change. Gone is the woman who was deftly handling insurance reps and tow truck drivers. Her tone shifts from assertive to submissive. Her perfect use of language and dictation is tossed out the window.
Instead, she uses a voice with a thick African accent and baby talks. It’s as if I have a different fucking person in my back seat. The newly dubbed Sister Chin Diaper opens the call with prayer and all I can picture is a Kewpie Doll with a prominent cowlick saying “Grace” at a holiday dinner.
Then Sister Barbie goes on to ask her about what she’s been reading in the Bible and they have a discourse about the Holy Trinity and discuss Christ’s miracles, particularly Mark and the blind man. Then Sister Barbie shifts the discussion to the Garden and Christ’s Passion, and to Christ’s Immaculate birth for some reason.
And right away I pick up on a frightening reality. Sister Barbie is playing serious psychological head games with Sister Diaper. I recognized it because the same game was played on me when I “found God.” The tactics are very similar to grooming techniques used by sex abusers. One of them is changing topics frequently, so to confuse the victim. Sister Barbie bounces around books of the Bible and concepts in Christ so fast my head is spinning along with Sister Diaper’s.
I found a whole lot of irony in my backseat at this point. I had to listen to Sister Diaper manipulate and use insurance companies and then listen to Sister Barbie manipulate her. This call lasts maybe half an hour and ends with a prayer, Amen. As fucking soon as it’s over, Sister Diaper’s verbiage and demeanor shift back to the insurance hustler. Then she’s playing a sermon on speaker phone…
By the same fucking pastor, I’ll call him Pastor Jeebus, as my rider last year.
I see motion in the rearview mirror. She’s got her hands in the air, palms faced out, feeling the Holy Spirit. She starts talking in tongues. I’ve got Sister Act going on in my back seat.
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?
This goes on for miles, until I stop for gas about a half hour out of her destination. I see she shuts up and pulls up her face mask, so I don’t bring it up. Sister Chin Diaper uses the restroom and I fill the clerk, who is outside smoking, in on my experience thus far. The clerk laughed so hard she snorted.
Chin Diaper comes back out and we go on. More Pastor Jeebus on speaker phone. More hands in the air like she just don’t care. She’s shifting around in the back seat, shaking the car as I drive – on her hands and knees bowing to the Lord, speaking in tongues.
We’re five minutes out and she tells me don’t go to the address, to go to the Sheetz a block away instead.
So I did. And parked the car.
“Here you go. Have a nice night,” I say. Sister Diaper remains in my back seat, not moving. She continues talking in tongues and praising Jesus, “We’re here. You can get out now,” I add. Then I see she’s back on her hands and knees.
“Ma’am, we’re here. You need to get out now.” She pulls herself up off my floorboards and back seat, and sits, staring at her phone.
“Ma’am, can you hear me? The ride is over, I need you to get out.”
“Are you going to drive me back,” she asks me instead of answering my question or moving.
“Have a nice night, please.” I reply, choosing to mirror her game, and not acknowledge her question. I learned that trick in sales. You want to play head games, lady? I can throw down with the best.
“I asked you question,” she says.
“Have a nice night,” I tell her.
“I said are you going to drive me back?”
“You need to get out of my car ma’am, the ride is over.”
“You need to answer me.”
“No, I don’t. Have a nice night.”
“I need to know if you will drive me back.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t want you in my car anymore, please get out. Some people get awfully offended by that Jesus shit, and well, I’m one of those people. Please keep that in mind the next time you are in someone else’s car.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. So how am I supposed to get back home?”
“Not my problem,” I tell her, “please get out.”
She gets out and disappears from sight. I lock the car up, take a piss, and drive off to call it a day. I get about ten minutes away and I see I forgot to shut off my LYFT app. And get pinged to pick her up. No one had taken her scheduled ride. I pull over. I shake my head. And I turn around. The insurance company calls me twice on my way back, making sure I know who my ride is (I told them I’m aware of who it is).
So yeah, against my better judgment, I pick Sister Chin Diaper back up. As she gets in I tell her she needs to have her facemask pulled up, and there is to be no speaker phone sermons on the ride. If she wants, she can buy a set of earbuds Sheetz.
“My religion’s credo is ‘Harm none, do what ye will,’” I say to her as we’re driving away, “leaving you behind could harm you, and I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to you.”
She apologized, using the timid, accentuated voice she used with Sister Barbie. She seemed grateful, and slept the whole way back in the backseat of my KIA. And I felt better knowing I hadn’t deserted a person in East Bumfuck, Pennsyltucky. Now, was this my conscious speaking, or did her God answer her prayers for a fucking miracle? Who knows. It could’ve been someone conjuring Cthulhu in my backseat and no one was screaming. Praise Jeebus?