You know how sometimes when you’re drifting off to sleep you feel that jolt, like you were falling and caught yourself at the last second? It’s nothing to be concerned about, it’s usually just the parasite adjusting its grip.
I guess I should explain that a little further, but it will take a while. And you have to promise not to get mad. My name is David Wong, by the way. It’s on the cover. If you don’t know who I am, that’s perfect. That means you didn’t read the previous book in this saga which, to be frank, doesn’t paint me in the best light. No, don’t go read it now. It’s better if we get a fresh start. So, hello, stranger! I’m pleased to have this fresh opportunity to try to convince you I’m not a shithead. Just skip the next paragraph.
* * *
If you do know who I am, presumably because you read the previous book, I know what you’re thinking and in response I can only say, “No, fuck you.” Stop sending me hate mail. Please note that all correspondence regarding the class action lawsuit resulting from the publication of that book should be directed to the publisher’s legal department, not me. Go find the address yourself, you bunch of greedy fartsouls.
* * *
Now, on with our tale. Note: I apologize for the harsh language above, you’ll find that is not typical of me.
So here’s how fucked up this town is. My friend John and I were out celebrating his birthday last summer. At the end of the night we were good and drunk and we headed outside of town to go climb up the water tower and piss off of it. This had been John’s tradition for the last twenty years (if you do the math, you’ll realize that goes back to when he turned five, which really says more about John’s parents than John). This was a special year because they were in the process of tearing down that old water tower to build a new, more modern one and it didn’t look like the new one was going to have the kind of platform that you could piss off of, because this is no longer a world of men.
Anyway, it’s two in the morning and we’re taking turns pissing off of the tower (rather than going at the same time, because we weren’t raised by wolves). So it’s my turn and I’m right at that transcendent moment when the long stream of urine connects me and the ground below, when I see headlights off in the distance. A row of them, out on the highway, about a quarter mile of cornfield away from where I was pissing. That was enough to get my attention, because that is not a busy stretch of highway at any hour, let alone in the wee hours of the morning on a weekday. As the headlights got closer, I saw they belonged to a row of black military transports.
I squinted and said, “Are we being … invaded? Because I’m too drunk to pull off a Red Dawn.”
From behind me, John said, “Look at that one. In the back…” and my pissing immediately stopped because I sure as hell can’t go while somebody is talking to me. I found the last set of headlights and saw that they were waving lazily back and forth—the truck swerving out of control. Then, with a faint crunch, the vehicle connected with a telephone pole.
The rest of the convoy moved on without it.
Before I could even get zipped up, John was already climbing down the ladder, over my slurred protests. He managed to somehow not tumble off and break his neck, and jumped into my rusting old Ford Bronco. I followed him down and barely made it into the passenger seat before we were speeding down the lane, rows of corn whipping past, John with the Bronco in stealth mode with the headlights off.
We found the wrecked truck (which was built like one of the armored cars banks use, only minus any markings) off the side of the highway, its steaming grille looking like it was caught in the act of trying to eat the wooden pole. We were alone with it—none of the rest of the trucks had doubled back to check on the crash, a fact that at the time I was too intoxicated to find odd. We cautiously approached the vehicle. John went right to the driver’s side door, I guess to see if the driver was hurt. He peered into the window, yanked the door open, then just stood there, in silence.
I said, “What?”
Nothing from John.
I glanced nervously down the highway and said again, “What? Is he dead?”
Again, no answer.
I approached and reluctantly peered into the driver’s seat. Now it was my turn to stand there slackjawed, breathing air that stank of leaking antifreeze. My first impression was that the driver’s seat was empty, which wouldn’t have been that odd—maybe the driver was dazed and had stumbled out before we arrived. But it wasn’t empty. Sitting in the driver’s seat was a six-inch-tall plastic GI Joe action figure. It was half obscured by the seat belt, which was clasped around it.
John and I stood there trying to puzzle through what we were seeing, the gears in our heads creaking against a thick vodka sludge. Not that it would have made sense in perfect sobriety, either—the driver, what, crashed his truck into a tree, then before leaving the scene of the accident, decided to position a toy in the driver’s seat and buckle the seat belt around it? Why? So the first responders would think the Toy Story universe was real?
John pulled the keys from the ignition and closed the door. He glanced around outside, looking for the driver. Nobody in sight. Then he circled around to the back of the truck, to the windowless, locked rear doors. He banged on the door with his fist and said, “Hey, you guys all right in there? Looks like the accident turned the driver into a GI Joe.”
No answer. If we’d been sober, we’d probably have realized that there was a great chance that if anybody was inside this sinister, black, unmarked armored vehicle, they’d more likely jump out with guns and kick the shit out of us than thank us for our concern. But that didn’t happen, and John immediately went about figuring out which key on the key ring would open the door. After a dozen clumsy attempts, he found one that worked and slowly pulled it open.
No one was in the back of the truck.
Laying on the floor was a box. It was army olive green, and about the size of a toolbox, or a lunchbox for somebody who always got really hungry at work. It had a simple handle at the top. The sides were ribbed in a way that suggested it was reinforced or armored somehow. There was no visible latch or lock, and in fact there was no obvious place to try to wedge in a crowbar. Across the front, stenciled in yellow spray paint, were a series of markings that looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs.
John climbed into the truck and grabbed the box. I clumsily climbed in after him, banging my shin painfully off the bumper on the way, whispering, “John! No! Leave it!”
Inside, I realized that we weren’t alone. The mystery box was being guarded by six more GI Joe action figures, each carrying a little plastic assault rifle. They were wearing tiny black suits with face masks. I guess more Cobra than GI Joe, then.
John grabbed the box and jumped out into the night, oblivious to my slurred demands to leave it behind.
* * *
If you’re asking yourself what exactly John expected to find inside that truck, the easy guess would be, “a shitload of cash.” But we’re not criminals, if we had found a pile of white bags with big cartoon dollar signs on them, we’d have locked up the truck and called the cops. No, the answer is more complicated.
John didn’t know what he would find inside that truck, which is why he had to open the door. There are two kinds of people in the world; the first see locks and warning signs and say, “If they’re keeping it locked up so tight, that means it’s both dangerous and none of my business.” But the second type say, “If they want to keep it a secret so bad, then it must be worth seeing.” That’s John. That is, in fact, the only reason he hasn’t moved far away from this fucked-up town. If you don’t understand what I mean by “fucked-up,” well, I ain’t talking about the unemployment rate. This thing with the trucks, it wasn’t exactly an isolated incident.
Six centuries ago, the pre-Columbian natives who settled here named this region with a word that in their language translates to, “The Mouth of the Shadow.” Later, the Iroquois who showed up and inexplicably slaughtered every man, woman, and child in those first tribes renamed it a word that literally translates to, “Seriously, Fuck this Place.” When French explorer Jacques Marquette explored the area in 1673, he marked it on his map with a crude drawing of what appeared to be a black blob falling out of Satan’s butthole.
In 1881, a group of coal miners got trapped when an explosion caused the entrance of the mine to collapse. When rescuers showed up to the mouth of the mine, they found sitting in front of the rubble a coal-dusted kid, the youngest of the miners. His exact greeting to the men was, “Don’t dig ’em out. They sent me out here to tell you that. Them boys blew it themselves. Caved it in on purpose, to keep what they found in there from gettin’ out. So just leave it be. Now you there, with that pickax? I’d appreciate it if you’d go ahead and use that to cave in my skull, same as they did to that mine. Just maybe it’ll gouge out that blue eyeball that’s starin’ back at me from inside my own head.”
Things have only gone downhill from there.
Here, in this town, three friends will stroll into a dark alley, and only two will emerge from the other end. Those two will have no memory of the third. It’s rumored that a year ago, a five-year-old kid went into surgery to have a brain tumor removed. When the surgeon sawed open his skull, the “tumor” jumped out, a ball of whipping tentacles that launched itself at the surgeon and burrowed into his eye socket. Two minutes later, he and two nurses lay dead in the OR, their craniums neatly cleaned from the inside. I say this incident was “rumored” because at this point in the story, men in suits showed up, flashed official-looking ID and took away the bodies. The story in the paper the next day was that everybody died due to an oxygen tank explosion.
But John and I know the truth. We know, because we were there. We usually are. Tourists show up here because they’ve heard the town is “haunted” but that word does nothing to convey the situation. “Infested” is better. John and I have made this stuff our hobby, in the way that an especially attractive prisoner makes a hobby out of not getting raped. Jesus, that’s a terrible analogy. I apologize. What I’m saying is that it’s self-preservation. We didn’t choose this, we just have talents that makes us the equivalent of that new guy in the cell block who has a slim, hairless body and kind of looks like a woman from behind, and has an incredibly realistic tattoo of boobs on his back. He may have no desire at all to ever even touch a penis, but it’s going to happen, even if it’s just in the process of frantically slapping them away. Jesus, am I still talking about this? [John—please delete the above paragraph before it goes off to the publisher].
So anyway, that’s why John looked inside the truck and that’s why he took the box even though for all we knew, the contents were worthless, or toxic, or radioactive, or all three. We did eventually get into the box, and considering what was inside it, they didn’t have nearly enough security around the thing. But that story will have to wait for a bit. Oh, and if you’re thinking that it was a huge coincidence that the truck happened to crash in the exact time and place where John and I were birthday tower pissing, don’t worry. It wasn’t. All of this will make sense with time. Or, maybe not.
Now let’s fast-forward to November 3rd, about …
48 Hours Prior to Outbreak
“I’m not crazy,” I said, crazily, to my court-appointed therapist.
He seemed bored with our session. That actually made me want to act crazy, to impress him. Maybe that was his tactic. I thought, maybe I should tell him I’m the only person on Earth who has seen his entire skeleton.
Or, I could make something up instead. The therapist, whose name I had already forgotten, said, “You believe your role here is to convince me you’re not crazy?”
“Well … you know I’m not here by choice.”
“You don’t think you need the sessions.”
“I understand why the judge ordered it. I mean it’s better than jail.”
He nodded. I guess that was my cue to keep talking. Man, psychiatry seems like a pretty easy job. I said, “A couple months ago I shot a pizza delivery guy with a crossbow. I was drunk.”
Pause. Nothing from the doctor. He was in his fifties, but looked like he could still take me in a game of basketball, even though I was half his age. His gray hair was cut like a 1990’s era George Clooney. Type of guy whose life had gone exactly as he’d expected it. I bet he’d never shot a delivery guy with a crossbow even once.
I said, “Okay, I wasn’t drunk. I’d only had one beer. I thought the guy was threatening me and my girlfriend Amy. It was a misunderstanding.”
“He said you accused him of being a monster.”
“It was dark.”
“The neighbors heard you shout to him, and I’m quoting from the police report, ‘Go back to Hell you unholy abomination, and tell Korrok I have a lot more arrows where that came from.’”
“Well … that’s out of context.”
“So you do believe in monsters.”
“No. Of course not. It was … a metaphor or something.”
He had a nameplate on his desk: Dr. Bob Tennet. Next to it was a bobblehead of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball player. I glanced around the room, saw he had a leftover Halloween decoration still taped to his window, a cardboard jack-o’-lantern with a cartoon spider crawling out of its mouth. The doctor had only five books on the shelf behind him, which I thought was hilarious because I owned more books than that and I wasn’t even a doctor. Then I realized they were all written by him. They had long titles like The Madness of Crowds: Decoding the Dynamics of Group Paranoia and A Person Is Smart, People Are Stupid: An Analysis of Mass Hysteria and Groupthink. Should I be flattered or insulted that I apparently got referred to a world-class expert in the subject of why people believe in stupid shit?
He said, “You understand, the court didn’t order these sessions because you believe in monsters.”
“Right, they want to make sure I won’t shoot anyone else with a crossbow.”
He laughed. That surprised me. I didn’t think these guys were allowed to laugh. “They want to make sure you’re not a danger to yourself or others. And while I know it’s counterintuitive, that process will actually be easier if you don’t think of it as a test you have to pass.”
“But if I’d shot somebody over a girl or a stolen case of beer, I wouldn’t be here. I’m here because of the monster thing. Because of who I am.”
“Do you want to talk about your beliefs?”
I shrugged. “You know the stories that go around this town. People disappear here. Cops disappear. But I can tell the difference between reality and fantasy. I work, I have a girlfriend, I’m a productive citizen. Well, not productive, I mean if you add up what I bring to society and what I take out, society probably breaks even. And I’m not crazy. I mean, I know anybody can say that. But a crazy person can’t fake sane, right? The whole point of being crazy is that you can’t separate crazy ideas from normal ones. So, no, I don’t believe the world is full of monsters disguised as people, or ghosts, or men made of shadows. I don’t believe that the town of—
* * *
*The name of the town where this story takes place will remain undisclosed so as not to add to the local tourism traffic.*
* * *
—is a howling orgy of nightmares. I fully recognize that all of those are things only a mentally ill person believes. Therefore, I do not believe them.”
Boom. Therapy accomplished.
No answer from Dr. Tennet. Fuck him. I’ll sit like this forever. I’m great at not talking to people.
After a minute or so I said, “Just … to be clear, what’s said in this room doesn’t leave this room, right?”
“Unless I believe a crime is about to be committed, that’s correct.”
“Can I show you something? On my phone? It’s a video clip. I recorded it myself.”
“If it’s important to you.”
I pulled out the phone and dug through the menus until I found a thirty-second clip I’d recorded about a month ago. I held it up for him to see.
It was a nighttime scene, at an all-night burrito stand near my house. Out front was a faded picnic table, a rusted fifty-five-gallon drum for a trash can and a whiteboard with prices scrawled in dry erase marker. Without a doubt the best burritos you can possibly get within six blocks of my house at four in the morning.
The grainy shot (my phone’s camera wasn’t worth a damn in low light) caught the glare of headlights as a black SUV pulled up. Stepping out of it was a young Asian man in a shirt and tie. He casually walked around the tiny orange building, nodding to the kid at the counter. He went to a narrow door in the rear, opened it and stepped inside.
After about ten seconds, the shot shakily moved toward the door. A hand extended into frame—my hand—and pulled the door open. Inside were some cardboard boxes with labels like LARGE LIDS and MED. PAPER BAGS—WHITE along with a broom and a mop and bucket.
The Asian man was gone. There was no visible exit.
The clip ended.
I said, “You saw it, right? Guy goes in, guy doesn’t come out. Guy’s not in there. He’s not in the burrito stand. He’s just gone.”
“You believe this is evidence of the supernatural.”
“I’ve seen this guy since then. Around town. This isn’t some burrito shop Bermuda Triangle, sucking in innocent passersby. The guy walked right toward it, on purpose. And he came out somewhere else. And I knew he was coming, because he did the same thing, every night, at the same time.”
“You believe there was a secret passage or something of the sort?”
“Not a physical one. There’s no hatch in the floor or anything. We checked. No, it’s like a … wormhole or something. I don’t know. But that’s not even the point. It’s not just that there was a, uh, magical burrito door there, or whatever it was, it’s that the guy knew what it was and how to use it. There are people like that around town.”
“And you believe these people are dangerous.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, I am not going to shoot him with a crossbow. How can you not be impressed by this?”
“It’s important to you that I believe you.”
I just realized he was phrasing all of his questions as statements. Wasn’t there a character in Alice in Wonderland who did that? Did Alice punch him in the face?
“Okay. I could have faked the video. You have the option of believing that. And man, if I could have that option, like if I could buy it from you, I’d pay anything. If you told me you’d reach into my brain and turn off my belief in all of this stuff, and in exchange I just had to let you, say, shoot me in the balls with one of those riot control beanbag guns, I’d sign the deal right now. But I can’t.”
“That must be very frustrating for you.”
I snorted. I looked down at the floor between my knees. There was a faded brown stain on the carpet and I wondered if a patient had once taken a shit in here in the middle of a session. I ran my hands through my hair and felt my fingers tighten and twist it, pain radiating down my scalp.
He said, “I can see this is upsetting you. We can change the subject if you like.”
I made myself sit up and take a deep breath.
“No. This is what we’re here to talk about, right?”
He shrugged. “I think it’s important to you.”
Yes, in the way that the salt is important to the slug.
He said, “It’s up to you.”
I sighed, considered for a few beats, then said, “One time, early in the morning, I was getting ready for work. I go into the bathroom and…”
* * *
… turned on the shower, but the water just stopped in midair.
I don’t mean the water hovered there, frozen in time. That would be crazy. No, the spray was pouring down about twelve inches from the nozzle, then spreading and splattering as if the stream was breaking against something solid. Like an invisible hand was held under the showerhead to test the temperature.
I stood there outside the shower stall, naked, squinting in dull confusion. Now, I’m not the smartest guy under normal circumstances but my 6 A.M. brain has an IQ of about 65. I vaguely thought it was some kind of plumbing problem. I stared stupidly at the interrupted umbrella-shaped spray of water, resisting the impulse to reach out and touch the space the water couldn’t seem to pass through. Fear was slowly bubbling up into my brain. Hairs stood up on my back. I glanced down, blinking, as if I would find a note explaining all of this taped to my pubic hair. I didn’t.
Then, I heard the spray change, the splattering on the tiles taking on a different tone. I glanced up and saw the part of the flow farthest from me slowly return to normal, the water shooting past the invisible obstruction in a gentle arc. The unseen thing was passing out of the stream. It wasn’t until the spray looked completely normal again that I realized this meant the invisible thing that had been blocking the water was now moving toward me.
I jumped back, moving so quick that I thought the half-open shower curtain had blown back from the wind of my rapid movement. But that wasn’t right, because the curtain didn’t return to its normal shape right away. It stayed bulged outward, something unseen pushing against it. I backed up against the wall, feeling the towel bar pressing into my back. The shower curtain fell straight again and now there was nothing in the bathroom but the radio static sound of the shower splattering against tile. I stood there, frozen, heart pounding so hard I was getting dizzy. I slowly put a hand out, tentative, toward the curtain, through the space the unseen thing had passed …
I decided to forget about the shower. I cranked off the water, turned toward the door and—
I saw something. Or I almost did. Just out of the corner of my eye, a dark shape, a black figure whipping through the doorway just out of sight. Like a shadow without the person.
I couldn’t have seen it for more than a tenth of a second, but I did see it, now imprinted in my brain from that flash of a glance. The form, black, in the shape of a man but then becoming formless, like a single drop of dark food coloring before it dissolves in a sink of running water.
I had seen it before.
* * *
“… I thought I saw something in there. I don’t know. Probably nothing.”
I slumped in the chair and crossed my arms.
“This is a source of anxiety for you. Having these beliefs, and feeling like you can’t talk about them without being dismissed.”
I stared out of the window, at my Bronco rusting in the parking lot, the metal eager to get back to just being dirt. Life was probably easier for it back then.
I said, “Who’s paying for these sessions again?”
“Payment is your responsibility. But we have a sliding scale.”
He considered for a moment and then said, “Would it put you more at ease if I told you that I believe in monsters?”
“It might put me at ease, but I can’t speak for the people who hand out psychiatrist licenses.”
“I’ll tell you a story. Now, I understand that with your … hobbies, people contact you, correct? Believing they have ghosts or demons in their homes?”
“And I am going to make an assumption—if you arrive and tell them that the source of their anxiety is not in fact supernatural, they are anything but relieved. Correct? Meaning they want the banging in their attic to be a ghost, and not a squirrel trapped in the chimney.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So you see, fear is just another manifestation of insecurity. What humans want most of all, is to be right. Even if we’re being right about our own doom. If we believe there are monsters around the next corner ready to tear us apart, we would literally prefer to be right about the monsters, than to be shown to be wrong in the eyes of others and made to look foolish.”
I didn’t answer. I glanced around for a clock. He didn’t have one, the bastard.
“So, a few years ago, while I was presenting at a conference in Europe, my wife called and insisted that the walls of our laundry room were throbbing. That was the word she used. Pulsing, like the wall itself was alive. She described a hum, an energy, that she could feel as soon as she walked into the room. I suggested it was a wiring problem. She became … let’s just say, agitated at that point. Three days later, just before I was due to come back, she called again. The problem was getting worse, she said. There was an audible hum now, from the wall. She couldn’t sleep. She could hear it as soon as she walked in the house. She could feel it, the vibration, like something unnatural was ready to burst forth into our world. So, I flew home the next day, and found her extremely upset. I understood immediately why my suggestion of a wiring problem was so insulting—this was the sound of something alive. Something massive. So, even though I was exhausted, jet-lagged and just completely dead on my feet, I had no other thought than to go out to the garage, get my tools and peel off the siding. Guess what I found.”
I didn’t answer.
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Bees. They had built an entire hive in the wall, sprawling from floor to ceiling. Tens of thousands of them.”
His face was lighting up with the telling of his amusing anecdote. Why not? He was getting paid to tell it.
“So I went and put on a hat and gloves and wrapped my wife’s scarf around my face and sprayed the hive, I killed them by the thousands. Only later did I realize that the bees are quite valuable and a local beekeeper actually came and carefully removed the hive itself at no charge. I think he’d have actually paid me if I hadn’t killed so many of them at the start.”
“Do you understand?”
“Yeah, your wife thought it was a monster. Turned out to just be bees. So my little problem, probably just bees. It’s all bees. Nothing to worry about.”
“I’m afraid you misunderstood. That was the day that a very powerful, very dangerous monster turned out to be real. Just ask the bees.”