No Flights Out
rating: +22+x

The sand is cool and dry. A starless sea below your feet, between your toes, up to and coating the fine dark hairs on your calves and thighs. The dunes are black as pitch, the sky bristles with stars, the world once so vibrant lay still, exhausted from its running and tumbling and scorching and dying: the song of the desert. Always moving, even if slowly, but more often quickly.

People consider the desert a stable, stale, changeless thing. This is as far from the case as can be. Tyre tracks stomp down burrows, off-roaders crush pebble-sized cacti that had grown for decades, careless tourists with sloppy footwork tumble, endure a few scrapes and bruises, right themselves, brush their oily skin against a rock face or cave wall or fuzz-dusted plant and that’s a mark, there. All of them, marks. It will be seen in generations to come. It will eat away at that stalagmite, burn away the fuzz of that plant and leave a scar, turn sooty brown that once-vibrant rockface now smeared with the effortless failings of one too many hurried tourists.

You are hiking in the desert. You have no guide, no map, no flashlight. Your camelbak is half-empty, and a small flipknife weighs down your chest, nestled deep in your breast pocket. The metal is warm on your steaming skin. You pass brown state roadsigns, unilluminated and invisible to night things without their dressing of headlights and human eyes. Over cracked roads, plowed-over Joshua groves, and into the cracked sand like iced-over avalanche snow.

What a place, the desert. Beautiful like the northern lights, but more. Vast, full of life, splendorous by existing, a sea of red and gold by day and black and silver by night. At your back is Vegas — burning bright, spotlights eyeballing the sky like police helicopters turned upside down. But before you is the dark. A void of space, an illusion of sensation: move your hand before your face and don’t see a thing, even though your brain wants you to.

Take a step, and then another, in a long string of movement all this way. You have through the boundary zone, the oil-drilling wastes, know this from memory and nothing else — the signs, the warning tape, the everything are hidden in the veil of night — so orient yourself with the stars and not the ground. North. Feel out with a callused foot and set your toes down on a thin sheet of crusted sandstone. Rock your weight forward, bear down, stay stable, exhale, lift your other foot. Bring it forward, set it down. Wait to die from a scorpion sting, a snakebite and don’t. Repeat. Feel your way forward, at the gravel-bottom of this fish bowl holding the stars. It’s rhythmic, melodic, hypnotic. Vegas burns at your back. Your eyes are open, yes, but between the cool air bordering on freezing — your fleece rubs at your skin, and reminds you that it is soaking through with sweat and night dew — and the deep, dark night blue-red and brown behind your eyes, and the long, long night this has been and will continue to be, deep as an ocean trench and long as a lifetime, your body thinks your eyes are closed. And with the simple rhythmic action of walking wasting away into muscle memory, with your legs plodding one foot before the next and the infinite desert turning you left, right, forward, with your destination in mind and impossibly far away up the dunes and into the stones and behind the rocks and below the sand, it is all too easy…

…to drift off. In the casino, you cannot. It is a measured place, a calculated sonic toothbrush buzzing in your mind, a flare and police-issue strobellight straight to the ears and eyes, an assault on the senses, a perpetual flashbang laser-targeted toward regions of reason. And you, hyperaware firework of a person that you are, are thriving.

The pit boss flashes up a card. Jack of clubs. A chain of calculations sparks down in the back of your mind, the wheels there clean and gleaming and working-hot, stoked and maintained since you were six and maintained by the person who brought you here. Your heartbeat drums in your hands, in your fingers — tap, tap, on the table. Show cards, drop chequered plastic coins onto your growing stack. A clean win, again. Take another hand. Wait out a round. Tick-tick, let the dice roll. Probabilities come up, and you are down. Try again, cards slick in your hand. Succeed. Click the coins together, click your teeth inside your mouth, click your heels under the table. Feel your heartbeat move from your chest to your fingertips, from your fingertips to your cards and up to your mouth. Luck is on your side tonight. It’s ash in the air, smoke in the persistent reek of casino air that clings like tar to the skin and under the nails and in the clothing. You’ll dump this suit when you’re done tonight.

Take the stack of coins. Stretch, don’t take the hand proffered. No more rounds for you, not at this table. Walk away, calculating engine you are, exhausted. Even you can’t go forever. Just put up that demeanor of joy, of smoothness, of greased wheels. Keep going. Walk it off.

The pit boss’s eyes narrow — you feel it at your back, this night and the next and the one after that. She’s seen you before, in the briefings and company-issue reports and casino databases. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but not for the House. They know who you are.

But you won’t be kicked out yet. There’s always a profit to be made, somehow. They’ll test the waters with you for a night or two. Or three — you’ll be here tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. They’ll put the hammer down after that, put the notice to the guards at the doors. But then you won’t be there at all. Back home you go.

It’s disappointing that you will leave. You’re not here for the money anyway. Really, in a way, you’re here to lose.

The desert is finite when measured in miles by helicopter and Cessna. Charted out on a map, held it in the hand, it seems smaller than a city. But no matter how you take it, there is a simple reality about distance in a desert: on the ground, the sand is infinite. Between every rock, there is a plant; between every plant, there is sand; between each grain, there is space with seeds and pollen and trapped moisture and hyperfertilized dust and everything else besides. And beneath all of that is oil.

There is a jade charm around your neck. You finger it, follow the spiralling horns with your fingers, thumb the snout and the long bridge leading up to the eyes, stroke the carved wool, still thick and soft even when set in gemstone. The artist did gorgeous work.

If only you knew who they had been.

You walk. The desert is chilly, the stars like ice crystals on black velvet. Your pace is swift, sand on your calves thickened, eyes sharpened against the dead of night. Sometimes you see shadows, as you toe your way forward in the black. Or maybe you are imagining them, eyes unused to seeing nothing. Stretch out your arm and brush a shadow-rock. Feel nothing, nothing, then feel something — recoil in shock. Was that chance, to see in the absence of light?

Run the calculations — or try to, at least. Sip from your camelbak, contemplative, standing still. Human psychology is… but don’t get past that. Stare at the sky. Then keep walking. So what that you couldn’t figure the probability of that. Big deal.

You know your skills don’t exist outside of gambling. You count cards in Blackjack. You strategize suits in Texas Hold’em. You catch tells like nobody else in Poker. And you can’t drive a car, you can’t stitch fabric, you can’t do basic algebra, you can’t do physics or chemistry or botany or any of the sort. Can’t do law, can’t do art. Mom won’t call you.

You’re too scared to call her first.

Breathe deep. Take another sip of water: tuck your chin, grasp the nipple in your teeth, close your lips in a vacuum around the rubber, bite down. Sweet cold on your tongue, slightly tinted with lead and iron from when you filled it in your hotel room’s bathroom sink. Remember that: the no-smoking sign, the shallow sheets, the memory foam mattress soaked with prior sweat and overweight bodies for years until you, the deep valley in the bed you tried to sleep in, the way you tumbled in fevered non-sleep amid the tangled sweat-sea of the sheets and comforter until rolling to the floor to sleep there, the reek of cigarette smoke embedded in the carpet assaulting your dreams.

That it was a single bed. Nobody else there. No Otto.

Water on your tongue, on your cracked lips, travelling up your nose as humidity to filter through your tear ducts, steaming your eyes. Blink, and see no difference.

Don’t drink too much. Your calculating engine remembers that — has been taught that. Thumb your necklace, rub the wool and horns and gazing sightless eyes of jade. Breathe. Clear your mind, swallow the remains of the water so delicious. Consciously bring your arm, tense your tendons and loosen your muscles on the sides and formations, ungrasp your fingers, pluck the water away from your grabbing mouth. Five mouthfuls. In another twenty minutes, you can have five more.

Nothing like limitations on biology to frustrate a species built on achievement. You stand there, staring at the stars until your muscles start to cramp from the cold.

Standing. Something clinks in your pocket. A memory? You’ve dawdled long enough. The day is not close, but it approaches — the moon is at its peak. Your feet are like concrete as you consider your options. None come to mind.

Your knife rests heavy in your breast pocket, a thick-tanged thing with an edge razor-sharp and battered with a hammer against the corner of a brick until the metal ripples like the waves of the sea. A little piece of the ocean, even here. One that hurts worse than salt when it cuts.

The stars glare at you. You bow your head to them. A casino chip clinks in your pocket — how did it get there?

Drop it in the oil-damp sand. And keep walking. Somewhere on the unseen horizon, a man groans. You quicken your pace.

The casino doors slam, and you are on the streets of Vegas. Again.

It had been a week. Five days plus two. Time spent, hard-cash, for real money: a week of winning by probability. A week of being let in by surnames, by old state IDs, by insurance plan documents’ misspellings. All legal, all true.

All not you.

Go to the Heart Attack Burger. Not good. Go to the Safeway across the street — dodge the cars, clip around the ever-on headlights, snap past the LED-strewn stop signs.

It’s all the same. Fried food — too expensive — too cheap — too long — too bad. All something that leaves stains in the stomach, makes you remember eating it days after it should be gone, resting like a brick in the system until you’ve donated half your body weight in blood and lost five pounds sweating it out in gyms across the country. Wherever the bus goes, wherever’s within biking or hiking or running or walking distance from the trainstop. That’s your America. Wherever you can get from the last available network of public transit. It’s not what everyone else lives in. A half-world, seen in glimpses and through curses in road traffic and news reports about cars crashing into buses and the buses winning.

Maybe one day you’ll buy a plane. A nice Cessna, beaten up and neglected like a goldfish in a bowl taken care of by a five-year-old. You’d shine her up, grease her systems, replace her wheels, sturdy her frame and buff out her wings with a hammer. She wouldn’t be pretty, with you using whatever paint Lowe’s was throwing out that day and proofing it with weathering melt, but it’d do. She’d be loved. You’d clean out her engine and make her gorgeous. A whole Ship of Theseus with a plane.

A car drives up to the curb and his hand waves you in. The dream fades. Back to reality.

The man lies gurgling on the tarmac. You step over the spent flares, the piles of burnt-out thermite, the boiled-out batteries and pools of spiky grey-white acid from the uncoiled guts of dead flashlights. The stars — how many are there? Billions? Trillions? The universe is finite: expanding, but limited in each moment. Is the universe a desert too? Forever waltzing outwards but caught in limitations until the next moment, second, tomorrow, century passes? Planets curve toward their stars, asteroids collide and generate heat: for this, planets long to be deserts — is the desert entropy distilled? Are pebbles black holes yet to be born, or stars dead and rising again? It—

The man stirs. Gargles, spits. He is a shape in the darkness, formless and violent. A night terror. Your heartbeat is in your chest, but you are not frozen. You are under control for the first time in your life. Iron lungs, iron mind, smooth clicking of calculations in your forebrain and mechanisms of fight or flight in the midbrain, heart rate and breathing delegated to the hindbrain. Slow that heart rate. Slow that breathing. Be reasonable. Be sensible.

“Help. Me,” says the man. His voice is that of an old crow: raspy, croaking, inhuman. A far cry from memory — vocal cords burnt out from oil-fire fumes, skin cracking from dehydration and peeling into strips from the crash, mind wasting away from pain and betrayal. Is there sympathy left in you?

No. You had left your sympathy with the Blackjack chips.

You step forward. Smell sweat, iron, brimstone. The moon looms overhead, observing, and the clouds cloak the spangled sky. The man still wears the blazer with the insignia you designed and he stitched together, still bears those scars on his arm that you got him to stop making back in college, still has smile lines on his face mirroring yours. He’s not smiling now. Still has that same old hunched, soft-footed approach though. Easy to forget yourself around him. Easy to forget anything that matters. Anything that isn’t right, and everything that can’t be.

“Hello?” he calls to the sounds of your steps. You don’t count as a person yet. To him, you could be a coyote, or a hare, or an owl. You have time.

Concealed in your fist is the flipknife, warm and heavy. The design imprints itself on your palm as you grasp it, desperate to be remembered. His Cessna is broken somewhere far afield. Your hands still remember setting the caltrops, dragging up bungee wires, laying assassin coils engineered to tear and wrap and strangle whatever came through. Snap those airfoils, choke whatever wings come through like chopsticks after a fine meal. Vegas — sushi restaurants in the middle of nowhere? Customers decide the cutlery at that point, he said. There’s too much out of the ordinary in the first place for you to start learning fine dexterity. He’d laughed about that, once, that you could be so nimble at the tables and so clumsy anywhere else. You laughed too, because it was with him.

Now, your inability is horrifying.

“Who’s there?”

His voice is a drifting, a floating, a caressing consciousness on the wind. So banal that it comes from a ragged husk like him. How had you ever thought him splendid? A lie, a trick with cards, an ace hidden up a sleeve so long it stays through into the grave — that’s what he is.

He cries out in pain. He must have moved. ”Fuck. Please, help. Whoever you are, out there. Help me.”

Walk into the black-violet of the broken floodlights audiencing the tarmac, step into his shadow. The flipknife is leaden in your hand, warm in your frostbitten fingers, not gleaming but matte grey in the shining night. Strong, dense, yours. Something you bought with your own money. A rare thing.

You allow yourself a laugh. A chuckle. A giggle, really. It bubbles up from your inky insides and the pressure has nowhere to go.

“Rich— Richard? Is that you?” Otto gasps.

You look away. Here under the floodlights, the stars are gone. Blinded, submerged in quiet. Whatever you do here is yours. There’s no fate to interfere. Even the ram is absent — it brought you here, but what you do now is without its watchful gaze.

Consequences can’t leave this place. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

And then, perhaps set by your footsteps, perhaps by time, perhaps inspired by this defiance of death before you: a dead flare sparks to life on the tarmac like a setting sun.

His eyes. His eyes. Why are they green?


No, not just green. Jade. That fear, that confusion you see in his eyes, it isn’t real. He is carved. He knows why it has to come to this.


He’s desperate. Does he know? About the necklace. You look down, it’s gone. You suck in a breath. How did he steal it? That shouldn’t be possible. He’s broken. You’re broken too. Two wrongs don’t heal a faulty man. So how could he-?

No, it’s here. You finger the comforting weight, the horns, the snout. How could you think it was ever gone?

The desert feels smaller. Look up to the sky again — the stars are back, Pollocked; faux-static melts down towards you. The sky will crush you soon, suffocate you in its ambivalence. The black gives way to rainbow sheen. You’re losing your heart. Aurora Borealis in the desert. Is it lost? Or has your life, your history, your luck finally burst, come to drown you?

Breathe deep. Suck in air like lies, and the oxygen tells you he deserves this. Your heart beats for nobody but yourself.

His voice crawls like a dying wolf, words seeping out like oil and sludge. Can’t hear it. He speaks to your neck, to the necklace hanging there, not your face, not your eyes. Maybe you don’t have those now — but when was the last time you two met eye to eye on anything? When was the last time his laughed comments about him being your handler, you being his pet card-shark, you being his dog, were actually jokes instead of something met with a grimace and a curt nod? Met with anything but pretend comradery?

Everything is so clear now.

Your face is illuminated, stepping into the memory of the floodlights. He sees your thoughts, or the spectres of them. Sees the jade, mirroring his eyes, at the crook of your throat. Trepidation burns his lips, wavers his voice. “How’d you know I was out here, Richie?”

Your voice is a stone at the bottom of a still pond. A star in the empty ocean; a dark stain creeping across black oak floorboards. Touchless, gone, unreachable. If you speak, it will be vile, seething, full of pain and sorrow.

But he had taught you that he was better at speaking. Better at living. Better at opportunities. More than you in every way: your very voice was ugly; your face unremarkable. Perfect at the tables, perfect for blending in. Awful for all else, save for the cards: those were your domain. Someone like you, he taught you, needed a magic man. A golden-tongued sweet-talker. Someone who could get you into the places you needed to do your work, who could come up with travel plans and drill you on gambling house reputations and get your story straight for you. Brains for your calculating machine.

You needed him, he said. You agreed, somewhat. And then you stopped thinking, and it became true.

You step closer. Sand crunches, hard-packed layers flaking between your toes. At least, it will be sand eventually, as long as no one finds him. An erasure of the progress of years of rain and dry spells all by the weight of your steps, here on this abandoned tarmac.

He is shaking. Tears streaking smoke-trails down his once-crisp cheeks. A sad old man, grubby and grey, streaked with his own filth and silver hairs that flash like dimes in the dim light. His dollar-soft hands caress the ground at the iron toes of your boots, trying to push himself forward, his scoliotic torso sliding to kneel five feet from you. Four. His lower half flops behind him, drawn into a slug’s tail, and the only slime he trails is the dust from his limp legs. No leaving the game table this time.

“Oh god,” he gibbers to himself. “D-don’t hurt me. What happened? We had dinner last night. Everything was fine. It was fine. We were fine.”

You can see him again, in hues of and blues and greens and purples, shadows dancing across his face. The lights in the sky are getting closer, time is running out. The iron bars of your lungs lose their prisoner once again, your heart beats once more, pounding against the shell of what you once were.

The ram. It’s there, about his neck. That piece of shit. Can’t you keep anything? It’s yours. It’s yours. It’s yours. It’s yours.

Furious nausea roils at the base of your throat. Bile, yellow and green, slimes your teeth, coats your tongue, and you back away, shaking, freezing. Black dahlias are stuck in your teeth. Your knife is the only warm thing on your body, burning, boiling, searing your palm. Still folded. Clutched under your fingers, white and bony, scalding. When you were a kid, you would flick your knife — not the same as yours now, but enough for you to remember — out back and out, until the soft rasp of the metal and clicks of the spring filled your ears and the world calmed again. Slide, snap, click. A safe thing, reassuring and peaceful, driven by thoughtless violence undecided on whether it would happen yet.

I hate you. I always have,” you lie.

He is before you, unmoving. Would it feel good to help him? You can’t, though. He would gut you like he did your parents, your friends, every other person who got in his way. In your way. The two of you, a team, together, unstoppable. Unbeatable.

But I love you.

You step forward. Grab his arm. Cold metal in your hand.


A slick popping — wrenching, a wet tearing — a sick thump of warm metal into sweat-sloppy flesh, a sawing with the blade. The floodlights flicker, the stars gleam, and the air is bright like molten oil.

It is over.

Before the desert, before Portland, before everywhere and everything that followed. At the beginning of all of this.

You are at the casino. He had just left you, abandoned you, deserted you. His memory flickers in your vision, in corners. You keep expecting him in chairs, at booths, loitering, lingering. His coat on your chair, his fingers in your hair. Still can’t shake him, except: no money, no credit. That means no him. Who knows how many times you’d been here before, but this is your first time all over again, with only debt to carry you through. No Otto to pick you up this time, though. No safety net, no security, nothing from those thirty years you and he had written in history. Fuck him. Your skin burns, burns under the LEDs. Only wrinkles and the battering on your suitcase to show the passage of time.

And this. You finger the necklace — brand-new jade, yesterday’s stone turned gemstone. Your neck aches with its weight, muscles made feeble by the knowledge in your head of your zeroed accounts. That bastard. The pendant-piece is polished, banded striatum sparkling under the amber casino lights, UV filters cutting into the stone. You circle the ram’s horns, thumb the bridge of its animal snout, stroke the almost-soft stone wool with your thumb.

He said it didn’t bring good fortune. Made you mad, that. But then he explained: while it brought no good fortune, it did bring karma. What goes around, comes around. A collection stone of sorts. Store up enough goodwill, or enough bad, and you’ll get it back. Start wearing it at a certain debt, and get that as your setpoint.

Maybe he did it to push your buttons. He did a lot of that. Luck, and messing with it, is a gambler’s love and fear combined. Why bring yourself bad karma, after all? It made you laugh, when he showed it to you then, and he seemed almost relieved when you put it on your nightstand instead of around your neck.

You had put it on, though, in the night, soothed by its touch. And hadn’t taken it off since. And that was yesterday. Now…

Get it all back. Money, or people? Or maybe something else entirely.

You flicked your wrist, an inelegant maneuver. A card fell onto the table, then in the scramble to pick it up, another showed.

But despite that misstep: that night, you left the casino with more money than you had held coming in. The jade ram glinted at your neck.

It’s all coming back.

You reenter Vegas, morning sun ricocheting down the glassfront buildings of the Strip, burning even the darkest alleys. Bouncers of casinos, plainclothes and not, bustle to budge you away in crowds, deter you before you even near the doors, but you don’t near. They are left actionless, watching as you cross the street, and stare as you drift away. Sweat-stained suit, blood-crusted fingernails, knife lost somewhere along the way. Presence spent like money, like an hour, like any meal in Vegas. Gone by noon.

You wash up in the airport bathroom. Eyes bloodshot, suit in tatters. Splash your face with cold water, watch the dust swirl from your hair and drown in the drain. Get through TSA fine. Everything you had been is abandoned in the desert: a deck of marked cards, a flipknife, a camelbak. A puddle of gasoline, a pile of tinder, and a lit match.

A bloodstain and its owner.


You take a leak on the plane. Amber, all amber. Dehydrated. For the last time in your life. You flush it down. Pulling up your pants, a casino chip falls out. You pocket it, old habit — this one’d bring you luck — but that thought makes you pause, and you withdraw the coin. No need for false gods anymore. You have your own luck now. You feel it in your fingers. It is marked on the side, faintly — pen-marks.


You throw it down the drain.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. You don’t stay long enough to see the ocean, or the Space Needle, or the arena. You get your bicycle out of long-term storage, from one of those huge cement buildings with personal garages instead of apartments. You strip your travel clothes off, while you are there — peel them off, one sweat-reeking layer after another, shake sand out of your pants, tear off your week-old Febreeze-rancid suit, stare while you are naked and alone on that cold cement floor at the stark tanlines at your wrists and the bands of sun coiling your ankles. You wash yourself with a pre-moistened towelette packet — the whole thing — and suit up in silk that smells of lavender. Uncork a bottle, and spill cedar oil over it. No need to remember him now.
The jade ram warms at your decision.
You walk to the bank. Make a deposit, after failing to remember your card number three times. Don’t cash it all, keep some for later.

There is a later, now.

You make a call. Say your apologies, your consolations, your he-was-a-good-man’s, your I’ll-miss-him-dearly’s, your when-is-the-service. Hang up. Forget everything.

Vegas was forever. But you aren’t. It is finally time to let the counting machine wind down; to let the gears grow soft and wide; to let yourself grow old. It is time to forget. To move on.

Finally, after all that time, you take the Amtrak. Slow, languid, disproportionately expensive. You can afford it, now.

You take the train. Back to Oregon.

Take the MAX. Back to Portland.

Take your bike. Down the street.

You arrive. At the address. Remember this place?


You let yourself in. Back home.

Finally, the sea has collaborated with the flowering plant. In a pyramid scheme. That weird glass Bass Pro Shops pyramid where you can buy three-headed fish at the low low price of $4,000. After an admittance fee of $350, and after a hotel room nearby for $1,600. Can’t leave without spending more than what you came in with, so buy those tackle lines for $70 and the iron box with no weatherproofing for $230, and better haul in some books on best fishing spots to make it worth your while. Get a backpack, Tactical or Rugged somewhere in the name, when you realize you can’t haul all your gear around the shop without a cart, and they don’t carry carts because those aren’t masculine enough. Slip, staggering under your newfound center of gravity on the slick planks and topple over the side, hit your head right through the mulm sediment of the artificial rivers stocked with dying salmon and onto the concrete, crack your skull there and twist your neck and suck up a load of water and fish waste and you might have died until you blink and you’re fuzzy and soggy and coughing and it hurts in the back of an ambulance in the parking lot. Fee for transport to the hospital: $3,000. Your gear was left inside the pyramid. Paid for, but inside, and your card is overcharged and you can’t buy admittance back in to fetch it. Take your flight home, mercifully prepaid, and be glad you’re only out this much. Many more leave Vegas without their hearts, or their lives. All you lost is your money and pride.⠀⠀⠀—Styg

The Bass Pro Shop Pyramid is in Tennessee. You fool. You absolute fool ⠀⠀⠀—Snap

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License