It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck. The three of us ripped through the downpour in a beige 1996 Saturn Coupe, me at the wheel.
I squinted drunkenly into the rearview mirror and tried in vain to find the headlights of the black truck that was chasing us, but I actually wasn’t sure if its drivers needed headlights to see or if they even had eyes. I also wasn’t sure it was a truck, or if it was black, or if we were being pursued at all. It was definitely raining, though.
My friend, John, was in the passenger seat and the only reason he wasn’t driving was because, in addition to also being drunk, he was wounded—both of his hands were wrapped in the T-shirt he’d torn off to use as gauze. His wounds had not been inflicted by our pursuers, at least not directly—he had burned himself grabbing a fondue pot full of melted chocolate that we had been dipping fried chicken strips into (try it sometime, seriously). My girlfriend, Amy, was in the back seat. She wasn’t driving because she didn’t know how, but she apparently did have enough expertise to judge my performance, screaming warnings at me to keep my eyes on the road and to watch out for that curve and oh god we’re all gonna die.
In Amy’s right hand—her only hand—was a little gray metal container about the size of a shot glass. That container was what the occupants of the truck were after, and I had known this the moment they had burst into John’s living room ten minutes ago.
We had just been minding our own business, eating our chocolate chicken and making our way through a theme movie night (we’d picked out four films in which the ending is probably the main character’s dying hallucination: Taxi Driver, Minority Report, The Shawshank Redemption, and Mrs. Doubtfire). In through the front door came this whirlwind of a half-dozen men(?) in black cloaks, all wearing what looked like rubber Halloween masks—drooping, expressionless faces with lifeless, skewed eyeballs. The lead cloak was wearing the mask of a puffy-cheeked infant and brandished a weapon that looked like a huge, electrified Toblerone bar—a series of black pyramids in a row, fed by cables that ran inside his robe. John’s little Yorkshire terrier was yapping its head off, probably asking the intruders to take him away to a better home.
The “man” with the Toblerone gun had screamed, “WHERE IS IT?” in a voice like a spider that had learned to imitate human speech via some online courses it had taken. We hadn’t had to ask what “it” was. John’s house is my favorite place in the world, but there’s nothing else in there you couldn’t replace with a trip to Target or a garage sale held at a meth dealer’s house. No, they had come for that little brushed steel vial Amy now held in her hand.
They weren’t getting it.
So, John had grabbed the fondue pot and slung the molten contents at the thing with the spidery voice, inflicting hot brown splash damage on everyone in the room. Amy grabbed the vial from its hiding place (sitting in plain view on John’s kitchen counter, next to a novelty bong shaped like a triathlon trophy) and we sprinted out the back door into a raging thunderstorm. We piled into my car, I floored it, and that’s where we are now.
The rain was blasting directly into the windshield, the drops whipping toward me like hyperdrive stars. Visibility was slightly worse than what you get inside a car wash after they spray on that multicolored foam. Amy was yelling turn-by-turn directions at me and I was obeying, even though none of us had discussed where we were going. She ordered me to stop just as we arrived at a rusty bridge suspended over a roiling, swollen river. She threw open the rear door, sprinted out into the storm, and chucked the vial downstream as hard as she could. The angry, rumbling current swallowed it without so much as a plop.
John and I ran up to the rail and exchanged frantic “Did that really just happen?” glances. None of us spoke. A decision had been made and could not be taken back.
Amy had been right, of course, to do what she did. Goal Number 1 was to keep the vial out of the hands of the cloaked things that were chasing us and Goal Number 2 was to make sure they knew we no longer had it, otherwise they’d just strap us to chairs and try to torture its location out of us using some unspeakable method involving black magic and power tools.
John said, “When they get here, let me do all the talking.”
I said, “Amy, when they get here, I want you to do all of the talking. I’ll be busy restraining John.”
Our pursuers, however, never arrived. I don’t know how long we waited, leaning on the railing, watching the frothing current twisting and breaking below. Cold rain howled into our ears. John absently licked chocolate off his fingers. Amy shivered, her red hair matted against her skull so that it looked like she was bleeding profusely from the scalp. Maybe they knew we had chucked the vial, maybe they had never followed us at all. You’re probably wondering who “they” are and who they work for and those are both great questions. We climbed back into the car.
John tied his wet hair into a ponytail, lit a cigarette, and said, “I fucking knew something like this was about to happen.”
Amy tried in vain to dry her glasses with her wet shirt and said, “Well, thanks for letting us know.”
I said, “If they dredge the river, they can find it.”
“It floats,” replied Amy. “Did you see that current? River flows into the Ohio, that flows into the Mississippi, that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. They’ll never find it, unless…”
She trailed off but we all knew what she had left unsaid: they would never find the vial, unless the contents wanted to be found.
No ambush was waiting for us back at John’s place. The strange men-like shapes in their dark robes and Halloween masks were nowhere to be found, on that or any of the following nights. We had spent the rest of the evening dealing with the dog, as we had come back and found it lapping up the chocolate on the carpet. It turns out chocolate is toxic to dogs; it started puking everywhere and we had to rush it to the vet.
Or, that’s how I remember it, anyway.
I woke up on the floor of my junk room, a tiny second bedroom in my apartment that’s piled high with the weird bullshit I collect. Though I guess that wording would imply that I seek this stuff out; I actually meant “collect” in the way that dead bugs “collect” on your windshield. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was four ventriloquist dummies, where they had been propped up around my face so that I’d find them staring down at me when I woke. I thought the things were creepy as hell, and Amy knew that, which is why she had put them there. She is a monster.
I sat up on my elbows, feeling like a rat had chewed its way into one of my eye sockets and then clawed its way out the other. I squinted and saw that stuck to one of the dummies was a Post-it Note that read:
At the bottom she had drawn a picture of a muffin, little scribbled dots to indicate blueberries. The dots were actually blue—she had gone and found a different pen to do that part.
It was still dark out, I could sense it even though the one window in the room was mostly obscured by a large painting that was leaning against it. It was a painting of a clown that the previous owner had insisted was cursed (that is, the painting was cursed, not the clown, unless he was, which is entirely possible). “Cursed” turned out to be a ridiculous exaggeration, though. What was happening was the painted clown’s mouth was slowly changing shape with time, as if it was silently mouthing words. I don’t doubt that if you set the painting in front of a time-lapse camera for a few months and hired a lip reader to examine the results, it would turn out the clown was saying something very creepy or even profound. Maybe it’s a prophecy. And, if you want to pay to do all that shit, be my guest. But as far as I’m concerned, if the object isn’t killing anybody, it isn’t “cursed.” I’ve had it in the junk room for four months and it hasn’t inconvenienced me once.
My cell phone was ringing from somewhere nearby, which I assumed was what had woken me. I knew that at this hour, it wasn’t somebody calling to tell me they’d accepted my job application, so it was either:
A) a drunken misdial from somebody, in which case I would dedicate my life to finding that person and murdering them;
B) an emergency;
If it was Amy, then it was a good chance it was “B”—an actual emergency. If it was John, well, it could be any of the three.
A psychic once told John that his last words would be, “Hold my beer.” When he was eleven years old, he had disappeared for two weeks, creating a minor media frenzy in the area. When he turned up again at home, unharmed, he told reporters and police that he had gotten lost in the woods and survived by killing and eating a Sasquatch. His sophomore year of high school, John was suspended multiple times because for every single creative writing assignment, he had turned in a different version of a story about a teenager (named “Jon”) who was sneaking into the cafeteria and jerking off in the food. His senior year, he started a garage band that was quickly banned from every club, bar, park, and concert hall in the region due to his insistence on playing a song called, “This Venue Is a Front for Human Trafficking, Someone Call the FBI, this Is Not Just a Joke Song Title.” When John’s first girlfriend asked him what his ideal threesome would be, he had answered, “Me, Hitler, and Prince. I just watch.”
In the fifteen years I’ve known him, I’d say 70 percent of the overnight calls I’ve received from John were drunken misdials, 5 percent were genuine emergencies (like the time he called to let me know he was about to be compacted inside a garbage truck), and 25 percent were “emergencies” and really I can’t make those sarcasm quotes there large enough. Just in the past twelve months, the situations that John felt warranted a call in the wee hours of the morning included:
A) a dream/vision he had of me dying violently in Bangkok, with a warning to stay far way (note: we live in the American Midwest and I couldn’t afford a plane ticket to Bangkok even if I sold myself into the Thai sex trade upon arrival);
B) urgently notifying me of a “cryptid” he had snapped a photo of in his back yard, which turned out to be a passed-out drunk in the back half of a horse costume;
C) the results of a blindfolded experiment he and his friends had performed that confirmed that all Froot Loops are the same flavor, just different colors (“we’re doing Skittles next, get your ass over here”);
D) his million-dollar idea for a “Punch Zoo,” which is like a petting zoo where you get to punch the animals.
The last such call I had gotten from him was two weeks ago. It was just a few seconds of ambient party noise, before I heard John’s voice say, “What’s that sound? Everybody quiet, I—Ha! Hey Munch, check it out! I farted so hard it dialed my phone!”
But, of course, I couldn’t just ignore his calls because there was always the chance it was something apocalyptic. That was the hell of knowing John.
The phone sounded close, probably in the room with me. I knocked the dummies aside and pawed around the junk in my immediate vicinity. Behind the dummies was a piñata that the previous owner claimed was indestructible. So far, we’d tried shooting it with a shotgun and running it over with John’s Jeep and, sure enough, the candy was still safely rattling around inside. Again, that’s pretty weird, but what possible use is that to anybody? It’s just a waste of perfectly good candy. If you’re saying we should give it to the government so they can mimic its witchcraft or whatever to make better body armor for the military, I’m thinking you trust the government way more than I do. If it’s a bona fide Object Cursed with Black Magic, handing it over to the feds would be like giving a toddler a chainsaw to cut his birthday cake with. “Oh,” you’re probably saying, “so it’s better off in your apartment?” I don’t know, dude. Do you want it? Send me your address. You pay for shipping.
I finally found the phone sitting atop a bookcase, next to a VHS box set of a series of 90s action movies starring Bruce Willis (The Ticking Man, The Ticking Man 2, The Ticking Man: The Final Chapter, Ticking Man Resurrection) that as far as I could tell, did not exist in this universe. We never watched them, nobody has a VCR, and they looked kind of shitty.
The phone’s display said it was John calling.
I groaned and stumbled out into the living room to find that no one had broken in and renovated the place while I was out. There are reality shows where they do that, right? I heard the plink-plink-plink of the roof leaking in the bathroom, which the landlords wouldn’t fix because my apartment is on the floor above theirs and the leak wasn’t making it down to their level because, by pure coincidence, the drip was positioned to fall directly into my toilet. That was good for them, because it limited the damage the leak could do to my floor and their ceiling, but bad for us because it meant Amy had to hold a bowl in her lap when she peed (whereas I just let it drip on me).
The phone rang again. I went to the kitchenette and poured a mug of cold coffee from a pot that had been brewed yesterday, or maybe last month. It was five in the morning, according to the grease-clouded clock on the microwave. I found the muffin—blueberry, just as it had been depicted in Amy’s illustration—sitting on the folding card table we eat dinner off of. It was next to a pile of random junk that had been mailed to me in the last few weeks but had not yet been filed away (and here “filed” means angrily flung into the junk room while muttering fuck words). Most of the stuff in there arrives like this, just strangers sending it through the mail. Sometimes you can get a sad glimpse into their lives via the packing material—one artifact came packed in wadded-up pages from that Jehovah’s Witness magazine, The Watchtower, another was ensconced in shredded hospital bills, another in scraps of cardboard torn from three dozen boxes of the exact same Lean Cuisine frozen dinner.
Why do they send me this stuff? Well, you know how occasionally you get stuck with something purely because you don’t know how to throw it away? Either because it seems too sacred to get smooshed in with moldy coffee grounds (an old Bible, an American flag, a birthday card from your grandma) or because it seems vaguely dangerous (old shotgun shells, a broken dagger)? All of the shit I’ve collected is kind of a combination of the two—sacred, lethal, or both. So, they dig up my address and stick it in the mail. “David Wong will know what to do with it!” No, I absolutely will not. It just piles up and the stuff that doesn’t seem too dangerous gets sold on eBay (there’s a whole “Metaphysical” category on the site now, it’s great).
Among this week’s junk had been a water-damaged “haunted” paperback copy of Bad as I Wanna Be, the autobiography of Chicago Bulls power forward Dennis Rodman. “Haunted” because this copy, and only this copy, had multiple chapters describing how Rodman conspired with several teammates to ritualistically murder over fifty prostitutes in the years they traveled with the team. It doesn’t appear the book was doctored in any way, the pages have the same typeset as the rest, and they’re exactly as aged. I did some Googling, could find no other reference to the existence of this edition of the book, or to the killings. As usual, I have no idea what it means.
Next to the book was a small piano-black twelve-sided box, each side etched with a different rune in emerald green. I waved my hand over the box and exclaimed, “ODO DAXIL!” The box unfolded and I felt radiant heat waft across my face. Inside was a glowing orange sphere the size of a marble. We got this one a couple of weeks ago. At first it didn’t seem to do much other than emit quite a bit of heat but then, while John was over for Pancake and Video Game Night, he thought he heard a tortured wailing from within the sphere. I initially dismissed the idea, as he was pretty drunk and I think he always hears tortured wailing when he drinks. Still, the next day we took it to the middle school where a friend and former bandmate of John’s named Mitch Lombard (nickname, “Munch”) had gotten a job as a substitute science teacher despite his neck tattoos. He studied the glowing sphere under one of their microscopes for a silent moment, then looked up from the viewfinder to whisper, “His suffering is unimaginable, but the heat of his rage could incinerate the universe a million times over. All is lost. All is lost.” Munch had then passed out, blood running freely from his nose. That was the last time we’d discussed it.
I grabbed a pair of tongs from a kitchen drawer, picked up the glowing sphere, and dropped it into my mug of cold coffee as the phone rang for what I knew would be the last time before it would get dumped to voice mail.
I cleaved off a ragged chunk of muffin with my fingers and answered, “Fuck you and all of the ancestors who led up to you.”
“Dave? We got a missing little girl. You got a pen?”
“If it’s a missing child, call the cops.”
“The cops called me.”
I closed my eyes and let out a breath that smelled like I’d eaten an entire wet dog and washed it down with sweat wrung from a hobo’s undershirt. Let me give you a tip: if you’re ever the victim of a terrible crime—like, say, your kid goes missing—and you see the cops consulting with a couple of white trash–looking dipshits in their late twenties, it’s time to worry. It’s not because John and I are incompetent at what we do—and I assure you, we are—but because you need to start asking yourself a very hard question. Not “Will I get my child back?” but “Do I want to get my child back?”
I dipped my finger into the coffee, which already felt near boiling. I fished out the burning orb and placed it back into its container, which automatically closed around it. I took a sip, winced, and decided that the first person to ever drink coffee was probably trying to commit suicide.
I asked, “What makes it a, you know, a Dave and John case?”
“It’s another locked room situation, it looks like. There’s more, I’ll explain when you get here. But it looks pretty John and Dave to me. Do you have a pen? I have the address here.”
“Just give it to me.”
“One-oh-six Arlington Street. Next to the vape store?”
“You thought I needed pen and paper to remember that?”
“And hurry. I’ve heard you’ve only got forty-eight hours before the trail goes cold.”
“You heard that in a movie. Last week. We watched it together.”
He had hung up.
I sighed and ate another hunk of muffin. I glanced out the window, the bottom half glowing pink from the neon sign of the business downstairs. They left that sign on day and night; the constant hum made me want to blow my brains out.
Oh, well. It’s not like I have anything else to do.
Still, I was going to finish my muffin first.
* * *
Let me tell you what’s bullshit about every supernatural horror movie. Whenever the monster or angry ghost lady turns up, everyone is skeptical for at least the first third of the running time. It’s usually between forty and fifty minutes in that the protagonists begrudgingly admit that the ominous Latin chants emanating from the walls aren’t a plumbing issue. In real life, the very second Mom sees something red oozing from the ceiling, she thinks “blood” not “water from a rusty old pipe.” I wish people were as skeptical as they are in the movies.
This town, the name of which will remain undisclosed for privacy reasons, has been called the Bermuda Triangle of the Midwest. Or at least, I think I heard somebody call it that. I actually wish that was true, too, because there’s nothing to the Bermuda Triangle—just a bunch of routine maritime disasters that grew in the telling. A cargo ship never arrives at port and the headlines coyly say it “disappeared.” It didn’t “disappear,” guys—it sank. It’s a boat, in the ocean. Shit happens. What goes on in [undisclosed] is … different.
My point is, it’s hard to sort out the real stuff from the superstition. So, because I’m sick of getting your e-mails asking for advice, let me just quickly run through it:
1. If Your Home Has a Poltergeist
We got a ton of these calls after that movie Paranormal Activity came out, panicked people saying they had rocking chairs rocking by themselves, untouched drinking glasses scooting off a table, clocks running backward, etc. If you’re in this situation, you can combat it using a technique known as “Getting the Fuck Over It.” You’re telling me you’ve got angry spirits of old murder victims or something floating around and they’re causing less of a disruption to your life than an unruly house cat? Why not worry about your high blood pressure, or take a moment to see if your smoke detector batteries are up to date? Those things are way more likely to kill you than whatever is knocking over salt shakers in your kitchen at night.
2. If You Have Seen a Ghost
If you’ve seen, say, a translucent old woman in a long flowing gown drifting down your hall at night, that’s almost definitely a hallucination or just a regular ol’ dream. Think about it: why would a ghost be translucent? Smoke and fog look like they do because they’re made of tiny particles suspended in the air. Are you suggesting the soul is made of tiny particles?
In reality, your whole idea of what a ghost looks like comes from Victorian era photos, when long-exposure cameras required the subject to sit still for several minutes due to the primitive technology. If the subject left halfway through, you’d get that ghostly image instead. Fun fact: this is also the reason nobody is smiling in those old pictures—try holding a smile for seven straight minutes. If you’ve actually seen a ghost—and I assure you that you probably have, within the last month—it would have just looked like any real, solid person. It’s likely nobody saw that person but you and no, you can’t photograph them. You’re not seeing them with your eyes.
3. If an Evil Spirit or Demon Has Confronted You
If said entity appeared before you and started speaking, the good news is you’re not losing your mind. Contrary to what TV and movies have told you, it’s nearly impossible to have a hallucination that you can both see and hear—the mentally ill either just hear voices, or just see things, due to how the brain is wired. If you can both hear and see it, you’re either just having a dream, or you have an actual demon in your home.
If it’s the latter, you shouldn’t bother listening too closely to what it has to say. It may sound really important—prophecies of future doom, that sort of thing—but I assure you, it’s just toying with you. If you ignore it, it’ll eventually get bored. The odds are it’s not strong enough to possess you, kill you, or do serious damage to your property. If it tries, feel free to pray or put up lots of crosses in its field of vision; I’ve seen that work before. You don’t have to go with Christian symbolism, but not all religions work (for reference, at the end of this book I have included an index of which religions are true and which are false—there are some real surprises). Also, try playing lots of 1980s era power ballads, they hate that. I think because it’s the closest earthly approximation of the music they play in Heaven. I don’t know, we’re just guessing here. Conversely …
4. If an Angel Appears and Speaks to You
Here, the risks are different—if a messenger from the Almighty actually bothers to contact you, it’s probably not the best idea to just ignore it. So, obviously, the first step is to make sure it’s an actual entity and not a dream you’re having, which is surprisingly simple: just ask the angel a question that you yourself don’t know the answer to but that you can verify later (like, “What’s the square root of 123,456,789?” or “What will be the final score of every football game this Sunday?”). If their information is good, well, then you know you weren’t dreaming and whatever prophecies or advice they gave you could indeed be valid. Of course they, too, could be imposters, so if they ask you to do something morally questionable—like stab your own child or something—you’ll need to use your own judgment. Let’s face it: if there is a god and he’s the type to think it’s unreasonable to refuse such a request, we’re all screwed anyway.
5. If You Have Been Abducted by an Alien
Cases like this are almost always simple sleep paralysis—a sort of wakeful dreaming during which it is common to see or sense strange visitors. Another fun fact: the typical “gray” aliens, with their bulbous heads and big almond-shaped eyes, didn’t show up in abduction stories until 1964—about two weeks after similar aliens appeared in an episode of the sci-fi horror series The Outer Limits. The phenomenon of abductees claiming to have been probed anally didn’t start until 1969, the year colonoscopies became common. What I’m saying is, the creatures that visit you in the night are either manifestations of your own anxiety or are making your anxieties manifest just to screw with you. Either way, the call is always coming from inside the house.
I’ve never understood the panic over monsters. I mean, which would bother you more, finding out your grandfather had died in a painful industrial accident, or that his head had been neatly snatched off his body by some giant, leathery winged horror? Dead is dead and in the latter case, he didn’t feel a thing. So why should the monster be the one that gives you nightmares, aside from the miniscule chance that one day your grandad’s chewed-up eyeballs might get shit onto your windshield on your way to work? Also, what if you kill your “monster” and it turns out it’s like a werewolf situation, where the thing transforms back into a human as it dies? Your ass is going to jail.
If it’s not threatening you, just let it be.
7. If You Have Seen a Man-Shaped Figure Made of Inky Blackness with a Pair of Eyes that Glow like the Embers of Two Smoldering Cigars
Congratulations! You’re one of the few humans to have ever seen the universe as it truly is.
If it happens again, run.