The Thing in John’s Apartment
Darkness and warmth. And then, an all-beep rendition of “La Cucaracha.”
My cell phone. I peeled my eyes open. Bedroom. Nighttime. My floor looked like a Laundromat explosion. Magazines here and there, overflowing trash can. Just as I had left it.
Beepbeepbeep BEEP, BEEP. Beepbeepbeep BEEP, BEEP. BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP—
My hand managed to knock over every single object on my nightstand before it found the cell phone. I squinted at my clock, now lying helpless on the floor. Quarter after 5 A.M. I had to be at work in less than two hours.
Voice scratchy, breathing heavier than he should be. Like a man just after a fistfight.
“I’m in bed. Where am I supposed to be?”
“Is this the first time I’ve called tonight?”
I sat straight up, fully awake now.
“John? What’s going on?”
“I can’t get out of my apartment, Dave.”
“I’m scared, man. I mean it.”
“What are you scared of?”
“It can’t be real, Dave. It can’t. The way it moves, the way it’s made . . . this is not a product of any kind of evolution or anything. It’s not real. No. But it still managed to bite me.”
“Can you come over?”
One time, John wound up in the hospital after he blacked out behind the wheel of his car. He wasn’t moving at the time, thank God, but was in line at a Wendy’s drive-through. This was after five sleepless and foodless days of vodka and some combination of household chemicals he was using for speed. I didn’t know about it until a week later because he didn’t tell me, knowing I would have kicked his ass right there in the hospital.
But I told him if he ever got into that kind of trouble again without telling me I would not only kick his ass, but would in fact beat him until he died, then pursue him into the afterlife and beat his eternal soul. So John being spaced out on crank or crack or skank tonight wasn’t reason to declare a national holiday, but at least he came to me this time.
I said, “I’ll be there in twelve minutes.”
I hung up, pulled on some clothes I found draped over a chair, almost killed myself tripping over Molly the dog curled up in the doorway. I went out the front door with the dog in tow. It was raining again now, fat drops of April ice water that tingled down the back of my shirt as I ducked into my car. I was halfway to his building when my phone sang again. John’s number popped up on the glowing display.
“Yeah, John. You okay?”
“Dave, I’m sorry to wake you up. I got a problem and I need you to listen—”
“John, I’m on my way over. You called me five minutes ago, remember?”
“What? No, David. Stay away. There’s somethin’ in here with me. I can’t explain it. I don’t think it’ll kill me, it seems to just want to keep me here. Now, I need you to go to Las Vegas. Contact a man named—”
“John, just calm down. You’re not making sense. I want you to sit down somewhere, try to chill out. Nothin’ you’re seeing is real.”
A pause, then John asked, “How do I know this is really you?”
“You’ll know in just a few minutes. I’m comin’ up on your block now. Just chill, like I said. John?”
Nobody there. I sped up, rain drumming the windshield and boiling up into puddles on the passing pavement.
I was pounding on the door to John’s apartment seven minutes later, still pounding on it five minutes after that. I considered going down and waking up his landlord when I tried the knob and realized the door had been unlocked the whole time.
It was dark. No use looking for a switch—John’s only light was a floor lamp across the room and far be it from John to do something as rational as putting the light source where you could reach it from the door. Memory told me at least two pieces of furniture and probably twenty empty beer bottles stood between me and the lamp.
Nothing. I tried a tentative step into his apartment, my shoe kicking over a stack of magazines. I tried to step over them, cracked something glass or porcelain on the other side.
“John? Can you hear me? I’m going to call the—ooomfff!!!”
I was hammered by either a flying body tackle or an unnecessarily aggressive hug. My assailant and I landed hard on the carpet, pounding the breath from my lungs.
“It almost killed you!” John screamed, inches from my face. “You’re an idiot, you know that? You’re an idiot for coming here. We’re both gonna die now. You could have brought help but now we’re both gonna die in this room.”
He sat up off me and in the darkness I could detect his head whipping back and forth, as if searching for a sniper. He put one finger up to my face.
“Shhhhhh. I don’t see it. When I say ‘go,’ we’re goin’ to the other side of the room as fast as physically possible. You can clear it in three steps, dive at the end. Move like the Devil himself were after you. Ready?”
“John, listen to me.” I paused, forced air into my lungs and tried to think. “You can’t miss any more days at work. If you let me take you to the hospital, we’ll tell them you’ve been poisoned or something. I don’t think they’ll go to the cops. We can get a note from the doctor there. If we’ve got a note I could talk Jeff into keeping you on.”
John pushed himself to his feet, sprinted across the room and flung himself over an overturned sofa next to the wall. He sailed over it, arms flopping about like a rag doll, smacking into the wall behind it with a heavy thud.
I calmly stood up, walked to my right and turned up the floor lamp. I looked over to see John peer over the overturned sofa. Next to it was an armchair, on the other side a capsized coffee table. The man had built a furniture fort on that side of the room.
“John . . .”
He stood up, eyes wide. He put his hands out to me, fingers splayed.
“Dave, do not move.” He spoke flat, low and dead serious.
“I’m begging you,” he said, almost whispering now. “I know you don’t believe me. But when you turn around, you will. But do—not—scream. If you do, you’re dead. Now. Very slowly, turn around.”
Very slowly, as asked, I turned.
For a split second I was sure I would see something. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, as if swept by a puff of warm breath.
There was nothing there. I sighed, pissed at myself for getting sucked into this.
I faced John again, my raised eyebrows telling him I saw nothing more threatening than a very large and very naked poster of what appeared to be a female professional wrestler.
“No, it moved,” he said. “There.” He pointed to the corner, near the ceiling.
Very slowly, I turned and craned my neck, eyes following his pointed finger to the spot on the wall he so desperately needed me to see.
“John, you can either come with me to the hospital, or I’m calling an ambulance. But what I’m not going to do is—”
“The door! Go!”
John hurdled the sofa, then ran and threw himself through the open door. I stood watching as he tumbled onto the carpet and then smoothly unfolded into a dead run down the hall outside. I faintly heard him thump through the stairwell doors, shouting victoriously.
I sighed and looked around his apartment. I found and pocketed his keys, then poked around some more and found his jacket on his bed. I grabbed for it, then yanked my hand back in pain. Something jabbed my finger, left a dot of blood on it. I reached into the jacket’s front pocket . . .
It was one of those cheap disposable ones they sell to diabetics. There was residue inside and it was fucking black. Like used motor oil. I broke off the needle in the trash and stuck the rest of the syringe in my pants pocket. I had never done this before and I didn’t know if a doctor would need it or not, to examine the contents. If not, I was going to shove it up John’s ass.
I rooted around in his pockets for vials or pipes or anything else that would indicate what he had in his system. All I found was an empty pack of Chesterfields and a wadded-up FedEx receipt for something he sent to a Nevada address.
I stopped myself before I drifted into the area of what could be called “snooping” and locked up the apartment behind me. I went down and found John pacing back and forth in the parking lot, rain pelting him, fists clenched, ready for the dark god Cthulhu himself to come flopping out of the first-level doors. I tossed him his jacket, told him to get in my car. He opened the door, and froze in fear.
“What?” I barked. “What is it now?”
John was staring at Molly like she was the fluffy devil incarnate.
“Uh . . . nothing. When did the dog find you?”
“You know this dog? It’s been following me around like a lost, uh, dog.”
“I dunno. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go, before . . . something else follows us.” He glanced up at the apartment building.
I ducked into the car but didn’t start it.
John glanced up at the building once more, said, “Just tell me you could see it. At least that.”
“I didn’t see it. Tell me what this is.”
I held up the syringe. John rubbed his eyes, a man exhausted.
“You don’t wanna touch that. What time is it?”
“Just past five in the morning.”
“Friday night. I mean, Saturday morning. It feels like Friday night because I’ve barely slept yet. And we got work today, remember?”
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
“You called me. You begged me.”
John leaned back, closed his eyes. For a second I thought he had dozed off. Finally, he mumbled: “I did? When?”
“Tell me what this stuff is, John. They’re gonna ask me, first thing. Tell me before you fall asleep.”
“I remember now. Calling you. It’s hard, everything’s running together. I called and called and called. Like a shotgun, firing in every direction hoping to hit somethin’. I bet I called you twenty times.”
“Twice. You called me twice. John, answer my question.”
“Really? You kept getting weird on me. You know what I think? I think you’ll be getting calls from me for the next eight or nine years. All from tonight. I couldn’t help it, couldn’t get oriented. Kept slipping out of the time . . . you’ve got a voice mail message three years from now that’s freaking hilarious.”
I jammed the syringe back into my pocket and started the car. John reached over, grabbed my wrist. His eyes were open and alarmed.
“Wait. Where are we gonna go? Where are we gonna be safe from this thing?”
“Emergency room, John. I’m not playing this game with you. I don’t know what else to do and I don’t know how we’re gonna pay for it. You’re on a bad trip, or whatever they call it. Maybe it’s a big deal, maybe it’s not. Maybe you can just sleep shit like this off. I don’t know because I’m not a junkie and I’m not a doctor.”
“No. The hospital’s no good. We’ll go to your place, or somewhere. Anywhere but here.”
I can’t make myself recount the rest of this conversation. I’m too ashamed of it. The long and the short of it is that I let John talk me out of taking him to get treatment, that I worried more about him liking me than about whether he lived or died, that on that night, at that moment, I was the lowest, most selfish, worthless coward who ever lived.
So where was there to go? We were both scared for different reasons. He needed safety and I needed some kind of familiar comfort.
I’m not sure how we decided on Denny’s but that’s where we wound up. Well-lit, familiar, full of people. We sat in a booth and downed cup after cup of coffee in silence, John smoking his cigarettes and sneaking furtive glances out the window, me counting the seconds that passed without any psychotic ravings. I convinced myself with every passing peaceful moment that things were getting better, that the worst was over. In that, I was pants-shittingly wrong.
“Well?” I asked. “How are you doin’? Any better?”
“I saw things. Tonight. Both before and after I . . .” He trailed off, sucked on his cigarette instead.
“Okay,” I said. “Back up. You don’t know the name of the drug?”
“Robert called it ‘soy sauce.’ But I’m thinking now that was just a nickname and that it wasn’t, you know, actual soy sauce.”
Robert? Oh, of course. Robert, the Fake Magical Jamaican from the party. I would be finding Robert, I decided. I would be having a word with him.
“Robert?” I asked. “What’s his last name?”
“That’s the only name he gave you?”
“Yeah. I didn’t want to pry.”
“And he gave you the—”
My cell phone chirped. I ignored it. Who could possibly be calling at this hour? Tina, crying, wanting to get back together a sixth time because she’s at home and lonely? Jennifer Lopez, deciding she was wrong to have brushed me off at the party and wanting to play a game of Hide the Cocktail Wiener?
“Yes. He did,” answered John. “We were drunk, in the One Ball parking lot, after close. We were passing around a joint; Head and Nate Wilkes crushed up some kind of pills between spoons and snorted it. There was . . . other stuff. Anyway. We drank some more.”
Beepbeepbeep BEEP, BEEP . . .
“And then the Jamaican guy pulls out the sauce. ‘It be openin’ doors to other worlds, mon,’ he says. We made him do it first, saw that he didn’t die. It seemed to make him pretty happy and then—Dave, the guy—I know I didn’t really see this—but the guy shrunk himself, made himself three feet tall. We all laughed our asses off, then he was back to normal again.”
“And you still tried that shit?”
“Are you kidding? How could I not?”
The phone sang its electronic ditty again.
“Did anybody else do it?”
“Are you gonna get that?”
“You avoid my question one more time and I will come over this table and punch you in the face. Look into my eyes. You know I mean it. I’m tired of your—”
“It’s not that easy, Dave. Everything’s mixed up, like if somebody made you watch ten movies at once and then made you write an essay on ’em. That stuff . . . Dave, I’m remembering things that haven’t happened ye—I mean, that didn’t happen. Even right now, all that stuff from Vegas. Did we go to Las Vegas? You and me?”
The phone chirped a third time. Or fourth, I lost count.
“No, John. We’ve never been in our lives, either one of us. Are you the only one who took the sauce?”
“I don’t know, that’s what I’m tryin’ to say. We went to Robert’s place, but Head and the guys didn’t come. I think they got nervous when they saw a needle come out. There were some kids around, the party kind of landed there, at Robert’s trailer. Now please, please, please get your phone or turn it off. That damned song you got in there is driving me up a wall.”
“Wait, wait, wait. You took something that scared Head? The guy who did the stuff that killed River Phoenix just to prove he was the better man?”
“Dave . . .”
“All right, all right.”
I pulled out the phone, flipped it open, slapped it to my head.
“David? It’s me.”
Ah, that feeling again. That chill of unreality, my belly full of coffee turning to liquid nitrogen.
The voice was John’s.
No question about it. The man who was sitting across from me, smoking quietly without a phone anywhere near his head, had called me.
I glanced at John, said into the phone, “Is this a recording?”
“What? No. I don’t know if we’ve talked tonight, but we don’t have much time. I think I called you and told you to come here. If so, don’t do it. If I haven’t called, then obviously you should still stay away regardless. Now, I need you to go to Las Vegas. There’s a guy there—”
“Who is this?”
John, in the booth there with me, gave me a look. On the phone: “It’s John. Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you and I can see you,” I said, a tremble in my voice. “You’re sitting right here next to me.”
“Well, just talk to me in person, then. Oh, wait. Do I look like I’m injured in any way?”
“Fuck! Someone’s at the door.”
Click. He was gone.
I sat there, the phone still pressed to my ear, suddenly very, very tired.
If I had been sitting with anyone else, I would have assumed I was being set up for some drunken practical joke. But I knew this wasn’t some elaborate prank of John’s for two reasons: one, John knows how I get when I’m pissed off and wouldn’t intentionally do it, and two, it wasn’t funny.
I was scared. Truly scared, maybe for the first time since I was a little kid. John looked pale and half dead. My feet were wet and cold, my contact lenses were itching, my brain aching from sleep deprivation. I wanted to burn that cell phone, go home and lock my doors and curl up under a blanket in the closet.
This is the breaking point in a human life, right here. But my whole life had been leading up to this, hadn’t it?
From day one it was like society was this violent, complicated dance and everybody had taken lessons but me. Knocked to the floor again and again, climbing to my feet each time, bloody and humiliated. Always met with disapproving faces, waiting for me to leave so I’d stop fucking up the party.
They wanted to push me outside, where the freaks huddled in the cold. Out there with the misfits, the broken, glazed-eye types who can only watch as the normals enjoy their shiny new cars and careers and marriages and vacations with the kids.
The freaks spend their lives shambling around, wondering how they got left out, mumbling about conspiracy theories and Bigfoot sightings. Their encounters with the world are marked by awkward conversations and stifled laughter, hidden smirks and rolled eyes. And worst of all, pity.
Sitting there on that night in April, I pictured myself getting shoved out there with them, the sound of doors locking behind me.
Welcome to freakdom, Dave. It’ll be time to start a Web site soon, where you’ll type out everything in one huge paragraph.
It was like dying.
“Was that me?” asked John. “That was me, wasn’t it?”
I looked down at my coffee and considered flinging it into John’s face.
“I’m sorry, Dave. I really am. For messin’ up your sleep cycle and for everything that’s about to happen, the people that are going to, uh, explode.”
I was already up, walking out. I guess John paid at the counter behind me, I don’t know. I pushed my way out the glass door, dug out my keys. I opened the driver’s door and Molly the dog immediately flung herself out onto the pavement, barking her head off, looking right at me. Then she trotted off across the empty lot, turned and barked some more, then trotted a few steps farther and barked again.
John said, “I think she wants us to follow her.”
She scampered off down the sidewalk, glancing back at us to make sure we were coming. I slid into the car.
I pulled out of the space and drove in completely the opposite direction of the dog. John seemed like he wanted to comment on this, but the look on my face probably warned him off. I vaguely heard the sound of the dog running and barking after us as I turned onto the street, but disregarded it. We drove in tense silence.
Finally, tentatively, he asked where we were going.
“We’re going to fucking work, John. It’s six o’clock and we’re opening the shop. There’s nobody there to cover for us.”
He didn’t reply to this. Instead, he leaned his seat back, turned and looked out the passenger window at the passing storefronts and the few early-morning joggers, not saying a word. I eventually asked him how he was doing, got no answer. I could see he was still breathing. That was good. Sleeping, that’s all. I guessed that was good, too.
If he gets sick and dies, Robert Marley, they’re gonna find you in a ditch somewhere.
I stopped at a red light, feeling foolish as always for stopping at an intersection at an hour when the streets are deserted, just because a colored lightbulb told me to. Society has got me so fucking trained. I rubbed my eyes and groaned and felt utterly alone in the world.
Scratching, on the window.
I flinched, turned.
It was claws.
Molly’s. She was on her hind legs, her paws pressed against the window.
“Hey! I said shut up! Get your feet off my car!”
“WOOF! WOOF! WOOF!”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut! Up!”
This went on for longer than I care to admit, and it ended with me getting out and leaning my seat forward so Molly could jump into the back. Yes, the entire spiraling trajectory my life took since that night was because I lost a debate with a dog.
She sniffed around John and then barked at me, the sound deafening in the enclosed space. Still, John didn’t stir.
“What do you want?”
That seemed like a perfectly reasonable question at that moment. The dog clearly had intentions, somehow, and wasn’t going to leave me alone until I acted on them.
“What? Do you think I’m your master? Did little Timmy fall down the fucking well? What do you—”
I stopped, my eye drawn to her jingling collar, and the little metal tag there.
Please return me to . . .
She stopped barking.
The place was way the hell out of town, out near the big drain cleaner factory.
At one point I took a right turn and Molly went into a barking fit. I did a U-turn and she immediately calmed down.
I saw a big, run-down Victorian house standing off by itself at the end of the block, and realized the dog had just directed me to the right address. I didn’t know if dogs really did that but at that moment I was sure this dog could do it—
I actually said that out loud, in the car. Something had clicked so hard in my mind my whole body twitched.
I knew this place. I flashed back to the party, a huge kid with red hair, his back to me, standing with Robert the fake Jamaican.
That was Big Jim Sullivan.
This is his house.
Big Jim was a year ahead of me in school, six inches taller and twice my weight. He got famous around town after a carjacking attempt, which ended with Jim tearing the gun out of the assailant’s hand (ripping the skin off the guy’s trigger finger in the process) and then beating the man over the head with his own gun. Afterward Jim visited the guy in the hospital and spent several hours reading Bible verses to him. He once won a fight with Zach Goldstein by chucking him bodily over a guardrail.
I had lived in constant fear of the man, and even now I had the urge to flip the dog out of the car window and speed away.
You see, Jim had a sister.
We called her “Cucumber,” but I couldn’t remember her real name. She was in Special Ed, a couple of years younger than me. People think she got that nickname because of some sexual thing, but it was a reference to sea cucumbers. They have this defense mechanism where they puke up their guts when faced with a predator, hoping the predator will go for their guts rather than eating them. I should know, I made up the nickname.
You see, Jim’s sister used to throw up a lot, and I mean a lot. Like, twice a week at school she’d wind up vomiting somewhere or on somebody. I don’t know what exactly caused it. She had a lot of things wrong with her but at least she got one of the more clever nicknames out of the deal.
My last year in school, after I had gotten sent off and put into the Behavior Disorder program, Big Jim heard me using that nickname and I lived the rest of my school days afraid he would break me into little pieces in the parking lot. The worst part would have been that as I was bleeding and feeling teeth breaking off in my mouth, I would’ve spent every second of the pummeling knowing I deserved it.
So Big Jim was at the party. With Robert? What did that mean? And why was his dog there? Did he bring his dog to every party? Had he gone blind, and was Molly his Seeing Eye dog? Was it the dog’s birthday?
I felt like an idiot. Here I was toting the animal all over town, putting myself at grave risk in the process, when I could have just left her at the party where her owner was.
I scrambled to think of how I would approach him with all this, the soy sauce and Robert and his unnaturally smart dog.
Wait. Driveway’s empty.
So? Jim probably tied on a good drunk and was now sleeping it off at a girlfriend’s house.
Bullshit. Big Jim doesn’t drink, and wouldn’t leave his kid sister at home alone all night.
I got out of the car and motioned for the dog to follow. She didn’t. I called to her and patted my thigh, which I’ve seen other people do with dogs so I figured it must work. Nothing. I did this for several minutes, the dog not even looking at me now, sniffing around John again. I realized no amount of thigh slapping, not even an all-out blues hambone, would move this animal. I leaned into the car and started tugging at her collar. She backed off, growling, looking at me with a disdain I didn’t think canines were capable of.
“Come on, dammit! You made me drive here!”
Through all of this, John still didn’t stir. I think that was what freaked me out most of all. He was laying there in the uncomfortable bucket seat, twisted and slumped like a crash-test dummy. More passed out than asleep. I reached in and grabbed roughly at Molly’s collar.
I’m going to skip past the next ten minutes and just say that I wound up carrying Molly up to the house. The plan was to tie her up around back and slip away unnoticed, but as I passed by the front door, it opened.
Not all the way, just the few inches allowed by the security chain. I was hit by that jittery caught-in-the-act feeling. I turned, huge dog in my arms, to see the pale, freckled, utterly confused face of Jim’s sister. No sign she even recognized me, or maybe she just didn’t want to acknowledge where she recognized me from.
Hey! Weren’t you in my Special Ed class?
I quickly propped my chin over the dog’s back and spoke. “Um, hey there. I, uh, have your dog.”
The door closed. I stood there for an awkward moment, feeling the odd urge to drop the animal and run. I heard Cucumber’s voice from inside, shouting, “Jim! The guy that stole Molly is here!”
I sat the dog down and grabbed hold of her collar before she could bolt. The door snapped open again and I half expected Big Jim to show himself, his Irish copper-topped head appearing a foot and a half above where the girl’s had been. But it was the sister again, saying, “He’s coming. You better bring me the dog now. Or you can have it if you want it.”
“The dog. You can have it. That one is worth a hundred and twenty-five dollars but you can have it free because it’s used.”
“Oh, no. I don’t need a . . . I mean, uh, it’s yours, right?”
“Jim’s. But he doesn’t like it, either. He’s coming.”
“What, is there something wrong with it?”
Her eyes flicked quickly from me, to the dog, and back. Is that fear? Something make her nervous about this dog?
You and me both, honey.
“No,” she said, looking at her shoes.
“Then why’d you pay a hundred twenty-five dollars for it?”
“Have you ever seen a golden retriever puppy?”
“Your brother isn’t here, is he?”
She didn’t answer.
“I mean, there’s no car here. Doesn’t he drive a Jeep or something? Big SUV?”
She looked over, then said, “We have a gun in the house. Do you want the dog or not?”
“I—what? No. Where’s Big Jim?”
“Jim, your brother.”
“He just went down the street. He’ll be back any second now.”
“Dammit, I’m not gonna attack you. Didn’t he go to a party last night?”
Oh, shit, look at her. She’s scared senseless.
“Just outside of town, right? At the lake?”
She snapped, “You know where he is?”
“No. He never came home?”
She didn’t answer. She wiped at one of her eyes.
“The dog,” I said. “Molly, she was at the party. Did he take her there?”
“No. She ran off before that.”
So . . . the dog followed him to the party? It was there looking for Jim? Who knows.
She said, “I think Jim’s dead.”
This stopped me.
“What? Oh, no. No, no. I don’t think—”
She broke into tears, then choked out the words, “He won’t answer his phone. I think that black guy killed him.” She looked right at me and spat out, “Were you there?”
This was an accusation. She wasn’t asking if I was at the party. She was asking if I was at the scene of Jim’s death. This conversation was spinning out of control.
“No, no. Wait, the black guy? Is his name Robert? Got dreadlocks? How do you know him?”
She wiped her face with her shirt and said, “The police called.”
She nodded. “They asked if he was here but they wouldn’t say anything else. There was this dreadlocks guy, he came to the house a few times. He was on drugs. Jim works at the shelter for church and they do counseling and stuff for people like that. Sometimes people come here asking for Jim, asking for, like, rides or loans. The black guy would come here but Jim wouldn’t let him inside. Molly bit him. She ran out and bit his hand while he was talking to Jim.”
“When was this?”
“Yesterday. He was right where you are. He was yelling.”
“Did you hear what he said?”
“He said a dog bit his hand. I think the guy was some kind of Devil worshipper.”
“Uh, that’s possible. Do you—”
“I’m closing the door now.”
“No! Wait! What about the—”
The door closed.
Defeated, I led Molly around to the back of the house where I found about ten feet of chain, ending in a broken link, where Molly had presumably snapped it the day before. So the dog had broken her chain, then walked seven miles to an empty field in a neighboring town where she somehow knew her master was attending a party? Come on.
I tied the chain around her collar and tried to make a knot with it. I climbed back into the car, saw that John hadn’t moved even one millimeter other than for the steady rise and fall of his ribs. Still alive. That was good because we had to be at Wally’s in a few minutes and I hadn’t been looking forward to opening the store all by myself.
If i had known what was about to happen at work I wouldn’t have gone, of course. I would also have taken off my pants. But I didn’t have the power of future sight—not at that point, anyway—and so I just sat sulking behind the wheel as we ramped into the parking lot to start the 7:00 A.M. shift at Wally’s Videe-Oh!, where I had worked for two years, John about two months.
John was always bitching about “Wally” and how greedy “Wally” was and how he should have given me a raise by now. He didn’t realize that there was no person named “Wally” in the Wally’s organization. That was the name of the DVD-shaped mascot on the store’s sign. I never had the heart to tell him.
I parked and engaged in a discussion with John, transcribed as follows:
“John? We’re at Wally’s. You need to get up. John? John? John? You need to get up, John. John? I can see you breathing, so I know you ain’t dead. You know what that means? It means you gotta get up. John? Come on, we gotta go to work. John? Are you awake? John? John? Wake up, John. John?”
I finally climbed out of the car and walked around to his door. I reached for the handle, and froze.
His eyes were wide open, staring blankly through the glass. He was still breathing and blinking, but not really there.
Great. Now what?
If you’re thinking, “Call an ambulance,” I admit that’s what a smart person would have done. What I did was experiment for a few minutes, poking him and slapping him on the cheek and getting no response. Finally I found I could lure him through the door by taking his cigarettes and holding them out as bait. He walked like a sleepwalker, slow and shuffling, otherwise unresponsive.
Once inside I planted him in front of the computer behind the counter, reached around and brought up a spreadsheet to play on the screen in front of him. If anyone came in, he would appear to be sucked into his work on the PC. I looked at the scene, considered, then grabbed his right arm and propped up his chin with it. There, he looked deep in thought now.
I put away returns and boxed up Tuesday’s new releases so Tina wouldn’t have to. I pretty much managed to look normal for the few customers who accidentally missed the Blockbuster two blocks down the street. When I got some time to myself after lunch, I flipped through the yellow pages, picked up the phone stuck to the back wall and scooted up a chair.
Two rings, then, “St. Francis.”
“Yeah, uh,” I said awkwardly. “I need a priest.”
“Well, this is Father Shelnut. What can I do for you?”
“Um, hi. Do you have any experience with, like, demon . . . ism? Demonology, I guess. Like possession and hauntings and all that?”
“Wellllll . . . I can’t say that I’ve personally dealt with anything like that. People that come to me and say they’ve seen things or, say, they feel a kind of unexplained dread in their homes or hear voices, we usually refer them to a counselor or, you understand, a lot of times medication can—”
“No, no, no. I’m not crazy.” I glanced over at John, still catatonic. “Other people have—”
“No, no, I didn’t mean to imply that. Look, why don’t you come talk to me. And even if you need to talk to a professional I got a brother-in-law who’s real good. Why don’t we do that? Why don’t you come in and have a talk with me?”
I thought for a moment, rubbed my temple with my free hand.
“What do you think it’s like, Father?”
“What what’s like?”
“Being crazy. Mentally ill.”
“Well, they never know they’re ill, do they? You can’t diagnose yourself with the same organ that has the disease, just like you can’t see your own eyeball. So, I suppose you just feel normal and the rest of the world seems to go crazy around you.”
I thought, then said, “Okay, but let’s just suppose I honestly, I mean, in reality ran into something from beyond the—OW!”
It was a pinch on my thigh, like a bee sting. I flung myself upright, toppling my chair, letting the handset bang off the wall. I shoved my hand into my pocket, tried to pull out the syringe I had lifted from John’s place.
I couldn’t pull it out.
The blasted thing was stuck to my leg. I pulled, felt skin and hair come loose. I hissed through clenched teeth, my eyes watered.
I yanked, tearing the syringe free and out of my pants, turning out the white pocket with it. I saw a dime-sized hole in the white fabric, stained red. I saw a drop of the black goo now hanging out of the end of the syringe. Now, I’ll try to explain this without cursing, but the black shit that came out from that motherfucker looked like it had grown fucking hair.
No, not hair.
Fucking spines. Like a cactus.
Did I mention that the stuff was moving? Twitching? Like it was trying to worm its way out of its container?
I ran into the employee bathroom, holding the syringe at arm’s length. I thought about tossing it down the toilet, had visions of the stuff multiplying in the city sewer, and then threw it in the sink instead. I ran out, got John’s lighter from his shirt pocket and came back and held the butane flame to the squirming blob. It burned, curling up and around like an earthworm. The end of the syringe browned and melted along with it, stinking like charred electrical wires.
The soy sauce, the black stuff from Planet X or whatever it was, burned in the flame until it became a tiny hard black crust in the sink. I shook it off the end of the misshapen syringe and washed it down the drain, ran five minutes’ worth of water after it. The syringe went in the trash.
I stumbled back out of the bathroom, shaking as if chilled. I picked up the phone, said, “Uh, are you still there? Hello?”
“Yes, son. Just calm down, okay? Nothing you’re seeing is real.”
There was a strange, venomous warmth spreading through my thigh.
“Look,” I said, “I appreciate your time but I’m really starting to think there’s nothing you can—”
“Son, I’m going to be honest with you. We both know you’re fucked.”
Pause from my end.
“Uh, excuse me?”
“Your mom writes on the wall with her own shit. Big changes are coming to Deadworld, my son. Waves of maggots over oceans of rot. You’ll see it, David. You’ll see it with your own eyes. That is a prophecy.”
I jerked the phone away from my ear, looked at it like it would bite me. I slowly hung it back on the cradle—
I spun around. A bald black guy in a suit stood at the cashier counter.
“Yes . . .”
“Detective Lawrence Appleton. Please come with me. Your friend, too.”
“No, I, uh, can’t leave the shop. John and I are the only ones—”
“We’ve already contacted the owner. He’s sending someone in to cover for you. You’ll lock the door on your way out. Please come with me, sir.”