Russell Hatler

Jeremiah Pettigrew was an accountant for a cosmetics manufacturer in upstate New York. He was not a bullfrog, thank you very much. He’d heard that one so many times before you’d think he’d be used to it by now.

Jeremiah’s wife, Marrianne, was a Real Estate agent who had earned her broker’s license. Marrianne was a current member in good standing and past president of the West Seneca Million Dollar Club. Jeremiah and Marrianne had two daughters, Emily and Janine, aged eight and eleven, each of whom had her own pastel-encased iPhone with matching earbuds.

The family usually spent their summer vacations at a small cabin they owned on Lake Erie. Jeremiah wasn’t much of a fisherman, but he did enjoy the two-week liberation from his pesky spreadsheets and, because there was no WiFi and only three grainy channels of cable-free television, liberation from the pesky world of politics.

This summer was going to be different. Marrianne wanted her daughters to experience the Presidential splendor of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota up close and personal. George, Tom, Teddy and Abe in all their Black Hills glory. Who knew? Maybe someday one of the girls would be the fifth face on the mountain! For his part, Jeremiah figured if you’d seen one granite head, you’d seen them all, but he kept his mouth shut. Jeremiah had learned years ago not to mince words with Marrianne.

Jeremiah Googled the best way to get from Buffalo to Mount Rushmore. Driving was out. Twenty-one hours non-stop in a carful of females sounded to Jeremiah like the road trip from Hell. And you had to factor in several pit stops plus time out for food. Throw in at least one overnight stay at a motel. Two rooms at least. Each way! Scratch the car idea.

Flying wasn’t much better. Seven and a half hours flight time minimum with plane changes in Minneapolis and Detroit. Figure five hundred bucks round trip per person in coach. At least one meal at an airport along the way. Jesus! Jeremiah had half a mind to suggest they all drive to Niagara Falls. Maybe he could send Marrianne and the girls over the falls in a barrel. It could happen.

But Jeremiah knew he was stuck with the Black Hills, so he decided to make the best of it. There was a fun looking hotel in Rapid City he thought might work. The Rushmore. It even had a marble portrait of the four Presidents embedded in the floor of the lobby. The Rushmore advertised suites so maybe they could save on a hotel room. Then Jeremiah took a closer look. He could book two rooms with a connecting door for $79 each per night whereas a suite would cost $237! Always read the fine print. You got to get up pretty early in the morning to put one over on old Jeremiah!

At precisely 4:45 in the morning of August 2nd, which was a Wednesday, the whole family tumbled into the Volvo, wheeling one suitcase each plus a carry on, and headed to Buffalo International Airport. Roundtrip fares were actually $63 cheaper per person if you left on a Wednesday and came back home the following Thursday. Jeremiah knew these things. He’d processed a ton of expense reports for the salespeople.

The first leg of the flight wasn’t so bad, even though their plane was a puddle jumper. They had seats all the way at the rear of the plane. Jeremiah’s seat didn’t recline as he was smack up against the bulkhead, but he could handle that. Flight time to Detroit was only an hour and a half.

The second leg, thank God, was on a 737. He’d booked aisle and window seats on either side of the twenty-third row. Since the flight was only about a third full, both middle seats were vacant. They had plenty of leg room.

When they landed in Minneapolis two hours later it was noon. Mom and the girls were famished. They hurriedly grabbed a bite to eat at a fast-food counter (are you kidding me? $12.95 for a cheeseburger and a mini bag of potato chips?) and scurried onto yet another puddle jumper for the final leg of the outbound trip to Rapid City, South Dakota.

The last leg of the flight was not so much fun. Turbulence tossed the little plane around like the proverbial kite in a windstorm. By the time the plane landed, Jeremiah’s tummy was on the verge of revolt.

The hotel was nice. The family had almost the entire fourth floor to themselves. Jeremiah had decided to rent a car for the week. He’d booked an all-day bus tour to the Black Hills for Thursday, but he figured there wouldn’t be a lot to do once they’d explored Mount Rushmore. He thought maybe they might make a side trip to Fort Igloo, which was only a couple hours south of Rapid City. Tom Brokaw grew up in Fort Igloo. Jeremiah loved Tom Brokaw.

The next morning Jeremiah woke up with a rumbly tummy and a slight case of sniffles. He told Marrianne and the girls to go ahead and take the bus tour without him. He thought he’d sleep in and maybe do a walking tour of Rapid City later on if he was feeling better. Mom and the girls didn’t care. They wanted to see the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.

By noon Jeremiah was feeling much improved. He hopped out of bed, brewed himself an anemic cup of coffee from the single-server machine in the alcove, showered, dressed, and took the elevator downstairs to explore the little town. When he reached the lobby, he was startled to discover the desk clerk had abandoned his post, as had the concierge, the gift shop attendant, and all four of the bellboys. In fact the entire lobby was vacant, save for one middle-aged gentleman wearing a western outfit and a bolo tie. The gentleman looked up from his newspaper and nodded at Jeremiah.

“Mr. Pettigrew, I presume?” he asked. “My name is Ellsworth Jacobs. May I call you Jerry?”

“I am and you may not,” sputtered Jeremiah. “Where did everybody go?”

“Please follow me,” said the man, getting up and walking toward the door. “I think you’ll find it worth your while.”

“I haven’t had breakfast yet,” complained Jeremiah. “I’m hungry.”

“All in good time,” said Ellsworth. “I have a car waiting.”

Jeremiah followed Ellsworth outside the hotel where a sleek, black limousine stood waiting at the curb. The uniformed chauffer put down the newspaper he was reading and put on his cap. The streets were empty. It was eerily quiet in Rapid City. Ellsworth opened the passenger side door and got in, leaving the glass partition ajar. Jeremiah climbed in the back. The limousine sped off down the street.

“You’ll find a ham and cheese on rye in the mini-bar,” said Ellsworth, craning his neck to speak through the glass partition. “We won’t be driving far.”

Jeremiah opened the mini-bar and took out the sandwich. It looked fine. Several layers of moist, delicious ham the way he liked it and three slices of yummy swiss cheese. He wolfed down the sandwich along with a cold glass of milk. Dang. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry.

The limousine stopped in the parking lot of a decrepit night club at the edge of town. Ellsworth got out of the limo, walked around back and opened Jeremiah’s door.

“Please follow me,” he said.

“It’s a little early for partying,” quipped Jeremiah wryly. “I really can’t stay long in any case. My wife and children will be back soon from the bus tour. What do you have in mind?”

But Ellsworth had already opened the front door of the nightclub and gone inside. A neon sign above the front door said Crazy Horse. In the middle of the sign a jerky cowboy sat atop a bucking brown bronco, his orange neon hat flickering wildly. Inside the nightclub Jeremiah could hear loud, raucous music blaring from a professional-grade sound system. He stepped into the darkened interior of the club.

In the center of the room was a stage. On the stage was a girl, dancing, naked. Jeremiah caught his breath and stared. She was the loveliest girl he’d ever laid eyes on. She literally took his breath away.

The naked girl paid no attention to Jeremiah. She seemed lost in a world of her own. No other patrons were inside the club. Only Ellsworth, the girl and Jeremiah. A barman polished glasses behind the bar. A disk jockey managed the music. Jeremiah followed Ellsworth into an office at the rear of the club. Ellsworth closed the door and motioned Jeremiah to take a seat.

“I suppose you wonder what this is all about,” said Ellsworth, seating himself behind a mahogany desk.

Jeremiah nodded, dumbfounded. He still hadn’t fully recovered from the vision of the beautiful girl, bobbing and weaving sensually on stage to the pulsing beat of the music.

“I represent The Collective,” said Ellsworth. “As do the chauffer, the barman and the disk jockey. Every ten thousand years or so we’re compelled to initiate a restart in this domain. You see these pipes?”

Ellsworth clicked open a panel in the wall. Inside the wall were thousands of tiny holes. Each hole shimmered with light.

“These pipes contain souls,” Ellsworth explained. “The souls are being harvested today to await their return to The Collective for reintegration. Each soul contains the sum total of experience, sensation, knowledge and understanding gleaned from a lifetime in your domain. Do you understand?”

Jeremiah shook his head. The door to the office opened. The girl from the stage came in. She was dressed in a diaphanous wrap that did nothing to hide her abundant charms. She was smiling. She was beautiful. She was real.

“This is Nikki Domage,” said Ellsworth. “She will be your companion. You and Nikki have been chosen to restart the human race. Please take her back to the hotel and begin your assignment. Your project if you will. Your life together.”

“What about my wife?” asked Jeremiah. “What about my daughters?”

“They have been harvested,” said Ellsworth. “They are no longer your concern. Now go.”

Nikki took Jeremiah by the hand and walked him out to the waiting limo. They both got into the back seat. Nikki smelled fresh. Jeremiah didn’t feel fresh. Jeremiah was sweating bullets.

The driver took them through the deserted town back to the hotel. Nikki led Jeremiah to the elevator, the elevator doors swished open, she pressed the button for the fourth floor. The elevator ascended. Jeremiah found it hard to focus. So much to process. He was lightheaded. Giddy. Uncertain. The elevator slowed, stopped, the doors opened. Nikki led Jeremiah down the hall to the room. She pulled a keycard from the folds of her gown and opened the door. The bedclothes were still askew.

Nikki undressed the quivering Jeremiah, undid the sash that held her flimsy gown together and stepped out of her outer garments. She wore no undergarments. Up close she was even lovelier than before. Her lightly oiled skin glistened. Her taut nipples might put a guy’s eye out if he got too close. Jeremiah realized he was rock hard for the first time in ages. He took her in his arms, and together they tumbled, naked, onto the tousled sheets.

With her urgent assistance he was quickly inside her. Nikki thrust her hips upward. Once, twice. She moaned and trembled. Her moist lips found his as they climaxed explosively. The two lovers collapsed together, thoroughly exhausted, on the rumpled bed.

“Any regrets, Daddy?” she asked shyly, breathing deeply. Her firm breasts heaved in the most delightful manner imaginable.

“Only one, my sweet,” Jeremiah rasped. “I never should’ve agreed when Marrianne suggested the vasectomy.”