Author Richard Cox (that’s me) is known for combining high concept ideas with adrenaline-fueled suspense, and he’s taken the concept to a mind-bending new level in the psychological thriller Thomas World (Night Shade books, September 6, 2011). Thomas World explores the mind of a man who suspects his life isn’t real, that everything he knows to be true might not be true at all. And once he begins to question the most essential facets of everyday reality, his life spins quickly out of control. On a journey to find answers to our most intringuing questions, Thomas turns reality inside out…not just for himself, but for everyone. Including you.
Ahead, a highway interchange looms. A big green sign suggests I either continue on the 5 to Stockton and Sacramento or take 580 toward Tracy and San Francisco. But when I actually reach the interchange, I realize the decision has already been made for me. There are no lanes for I-5. There is another green sign, and the beginnings of an exit, but then the asphalt simply ends, as if it never existed, and instead of a highway I see empty desert stretching toward the horizon.
If my car were a truck, some rugged four-wheel drive thing, if I veered off the road and drove in the direction of Stockton and Sacramento, would I eventually reach these cities? I don’t think I would. I’m not sure they even exist. Clearly the only reason the roads I’m driving on are paved is because I’m expected to take them. Whether I decided this or it was decided for me is up for debate, but apparently my destination is a foregone conclusion.
And you want to know something else? This isn’t the first time I’ve been here. If you asked me yesterday if I had ever been to California, I would have said no without hesitation. Which maybe is odd for a man who wants to write screenplays for a living, but it’s true nonetheless. Or so I’ve always believed. Being here now I realize I’ve seen this freeway before, and I don’t mean in the fleeting déjà vu sense. I know for sure I’ve driven through this flat, grassy plain and seen those green hills to the west, have perhaps seen them many times. This is how I know so easily where I’m going without having to follow directions.
And the car behind me, that brown sedan? I’ve seen it before, too.
I’ve been on the run for more than a thousand miles. I’ve come across the mountains and desert, and I thought I lost them in Arizona, but there they are, the two FBI agents, Scruggs and Smith. They wear Stetson hats, did I tell you that? I’m pretty sure I did. Gray hats and matching gray suits, both of them. In the interrogation room I thought I had stepped onto the set of a bad period film, so baffling was their choice of clothing. Even their accusations were absurd, that I had somehow orchestrated all of this, and yet it turned out they were dead serious. Almost fifteen hundred miles later, there is nothing in my world more serious, because if I don’t figure out a way to lose them, I’m going to prison.
The brown sedan is two cars back and holding its position. Scruggs and Smith seem content to follow me until I stop, which obviously means I’ll have to take an indirect route and try to lose them. The problem is I only know the one route, and I don’t really know that, anyway. This entire trip I’ve simply driven forward until it was time to make a turn, and then I made the turn. Somehow I just know.
I pass through Tracy and then Livermore. The sky is overcast, silvery gray. There are a lot more cars on the road than there were thirty miles ago, when the highway was almost empty. Thirty miles ago I was looking forward to finally reaching Berkeley and stretching my legs. Thirty miles ago Scruggs and Smith weren’t behind me.or if they were I couldn’t see them.
The freeway splits in two. I can take 680 south to San Jose, north to Sacramento, or continue on 580 toward Oakland. Funny how Sacramento continues to appear on road signs, as if that city actually exists. This time the exits are paved, however, and cars and trucks and tractor trailers curve around their lanes. But once they leave my sight, what happens to them? What happens to their drivers?
Scruggs and Smith are still back there. The only car between us is a Black Jeep Liberty. In the rearview mirror I notice a young woman driving it-dark, shoulder length hair, big sunglasses-and I know I’ve seen her somewhere before. In another life, in a hospital room, somewhere. It looks like she’s smiling at me, and I remember a police officer, and a blood test, and-
I have to do something. I have to get out of here. I can’t go to jail again. They caught me once and if it happens again I’ll never get away. I miss Gloria, and I know what she did was wrong, but somehow I think if I could get back to her everything would be different. Somehow I know we could make it work, make it all finally work, and the world would be a happy place again. But I can’t get back there if I don’t do something soon. Like now.
After the 680 interchange, however, hills close in around me. I’m suddenly driving through a canyon and there are no exits. I see the brown sedan in my side mirror, and between us the exotic young woman in her Jeep. She’s talking on her phone. To whom? Scruggs and Smith? Someone more important? Now she begins to laugh. What’s funny about this? What’s funny about ruining my life?
Brown grass and hills and trees. That’s all I see. Where the hell are the exits?
A couple of tractor trailers loom directly ahead of me. Blue tractors with white trailers. There are four lanes, and I move into lane three from lane four. The brown sedan changes lanes as I do, and now there are no other cars between us. A blue Mustang in lane two pulls in front of me, driving very slowly. Now I can’t get around the tractor trailers. I swerve into lane two and hit the gas and accelerate past the Mustang. I glare at the driver, a teenage punk, and he gives me the finger.
When I veer back into lane three I see an exit go by on my right.
Scruggs and Smith know what’s happening. I’m growing impatient. Skittish. They know I’m trying to get away. I want to move into lane four again but don’t. I’ll need a tiny bit of surprise in order to fake them out. The freeway bends gently to the right, then back to the left, then to the right again. I see another exit. There aren’t any cars near me in lane four. This is it. I’m going to cut across both lanes, take this exit, and drive into the city proper, whichever city it is. Try to lose them on surface streets.
I’m nervous. Like palms-sweating nervous. Like mouth-dry nervous, like brain-blank nervous. The exit approaches. Castro Valley, it says. The road veers gently to the right, but I remain in lane three. Still no cars in my way. No concrete barrier dividing the highway from the exit, not yet, so I wait. And wait. And wait.
At seventy-five miles an hour I don’t know how much to turn the wheel, so I just do it. The car swerves. Tires squeal. I almost drive onto the shoulder and adjacent hillside but correct just in time. The exit takes me upward, toward what appears to be an overpass. I glance in my rearview mirror and see the brown sedan still behind me. Not as close as before but still too close for comfort. The road bends hard to the right and I’m forced to slow down. Ahead I see a traffic light. I could head for it, drive through it, hope no one hits me and find my way into town, or.
Coming up on the left is an entrance ramp which is meant for traffic moving the opposite direction, a way to get on the highway headed west, the same direction I’ve been traveling. There is a little dirt path where cars have illegally crossed onto it from this side of the road, however, and if I wait until the last possible moment, perhaps I could get over there and put more distance between the FBI agents and me before they react.
But I’m driving fast and can’t slow down much if I want to surprise them. A blue pickup truck enters the ramp. I don’t think I’ll hit him. I-
I swerve onto the ramp. The driver of the truck sees me and also swerves. He’s an old man with a gray beard, and he yells at me through his window. Somehow I don’t hit him. In fact I watch him for a split second as he comes to a stop. You never expect the details you notice during a car accident. Like his license plate number: PI31415. Bizarre.
Now I turn back around, and the world collapses around me.
I hit a guardrail. I think. It happens so fast. My car bounces away and up the side of a hill. I try to turn back left and hit the guardrail again and my car does some kind of weird stand-up thing. And spins. Like a pirouette.
The driver’s side door opens. I don’t know how. All I know is I end up dangling from something. The car is somehow suspended above me and the seat belt is holding me in, but it’s cutting into my side. All my weight is on the belt and it feels like a knife in my gut. The pain is enormous. I manage to get my hand near the release button. The guardrail is right there, and I could hold onto it, I’ll have to, anything to get rid of this cosmic pain.
My fingers reach the button. I push it without hesitation and immediately fall. I reach for the guardrail with both hands, but it’s sandier than I expected and there isn’t much to hold onto.
Below me the freeway roars. The sound is louder than you might imagine. None of the cars or their drivers seem to notice me. And I can’t hold on. Already my grip is weakening and my hands are slipping.
“Phillips!” someone inexplicably calls from above. “Give me your hand.”
I look up and I see Scruggs standing there in his Stetson hat and gray suit, so unbelievably he might as well be a ghost. Above him the sky is blue, too blue, like someone turned up the color saturation in Photoshop.
“Phillips!” he says again, reaching down. I think I could grab his hand before I fell. If I wanted.
“What are you doing?” he pleads.
If I let him save me, then what? They take me away, I go to prison, and I might stay there the rest of my life. But that isn’t what stops me from giving him my hand.
What stops me is the idea of being imprisoned for eternity.
Maybe you think I’m being melodramatic, but if you saw the fear in Scruggs’ eyes you would understand.
“Phillips!” he cries. “Don’t do this!”
He reaches for my hands, cat-quick, but I knew he was going to do that. I always know.
The highway roars beneath me, growing louder, closer, and I hear the howl of air brakes and the screech of many tires on the asphalt. The sky above me is enormous and blue and it doesn’t look real.
Then everything becomes quiet.
I am alone.