The Soy Sauce
Two hours later I pulled my Hyundai into Shire Village. The now-cold bratwurst sat on the dash, little smears of mustard on the windshield where the sloppy wax paper contacted it. I put it to my head.
I was greeted with a burst of static, but then John’s voice came in, fainter than before.
“What, did you drive under a bridge just now?”
“No. We’re at the trailer park. Finally. Which one is Robert’s?”
“—and as long as you absolutely remember not to do that, you’ll be fine. Good luck.”
“What? John, I didn’t catch the—”
Dead. The voice was gone, the static was gone. It was just a sausage again. I resigned myself to the hope that whatever I had to do next would be apparent from a look at Robert’s place.
His trailer was one of only two that had yellow police tape over the porch and door, and the other one looked like it had been abandoned months ago. Meth lab.
I parked off in the grass across the lot and walked toward Robert’s abode. Nobody was there, or at least nobody who came in a car. I knocked for some reason, then went in.
They had cleaned up the blood and guts. I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me, since I should have known they wouldn’t just let the entrails collect flies for twelve hours. Still, I recognized the room from the photos the cop showed me, the scene of Robert’s wet explosion. The carpet was still a few shades off from its original color and the walls were forever stained a faded reddish-brown. And there was a smell, awful and organic. Mildew and rotten milk and shit.
The walls were stripped bare, no family photos or framed landscapes from Wal-Mart or movie posters. Did the cops do that? No television. A sofa, a chair pocked with cigarette burns. Was he living here, or squatting?
I glanced into the open kitchenette at one end of the trailer, then turned and walked down a short hallway to the other end. I pushed through a closed door leading to what had to be a bedroom—
—and stopped. I was suddenly looking out over a snow-dusted field, a range of mountains spiking into a stunning violet sky from the horizon. Not a picture, that’s not how it struck me. It was like that end of the trailer had been chainsawed off to reveal the outdoors, only if that had really happened I would’ve only seen the neighbor’s rusty trailer and an abandoned Oldsmobile floating among the weeds. What I saw instead took my breath away.
I stepped backward into the hallway, dizzy, disoriented, afraid I would be sucked in somehow. It took almost a minute to realize what I was looking at.
It was a painting. A floor-to-walls-to-ceiling mural. He had painted the walls, the trim on the windows, the damned glass in the window. He painted over the curtains, painted the carpet, painted the sheets and wrinkled comforter on the unmade bed so that, when viewed from the doorway, the effect was beyond photographic. There was a half-full water glass on the nightstand, and a sprout of ice-coated weeds painted on the wall continued on the nightstand and onto the glass. There was a little crack in the glass and the artist incorporated it into the painting, the fracture becoming a glint of sunlight off an ice-covered leaf.
The effect was too much. It gave me a heaviness in my gut like the first time I saw a skyscraper when I was a kid. Picasso could not have done this, not if he had a lifetime to devote to it. Step on that carpet and disturb the texture, or brush against the comforter and the effect would be ruined.
Whoa. Just . . . whoa.
I don’t know how long I stood there, absorbing it, overwhelmed by the details.
There’s a deer, complete with little hoofprints in the snow. A happy little cabin, the family in the yard . . .
As I took in those little details, my amazement began to sour, congealing into a cold dread.
The cabin on the mountainside, that’s not a little tree out front. It’s a makeshift cross, with a man hanging from it. His legs have been cut off. The woman standing next to it . . . look at the infant in her arms. It has a single, curved horn coming out of its skull. And unfortunately for the old man, the baby still looks hungry. The frozen pond in back, those aren’t reeds sticking up through the ice all across the surface. Those are hands. And that deer? It has a huge cock, making a little trench in the snow behind it . . .
I closed the door, deciding to never open it again. I walked back down the hall toward the living room, passed a bathroom, then did a double take, leaning back to look inside. Nothing unusual.
The toilet is askew.
“So?” I said, out loud.
Damn my curiosity. I stepped into the bathroom, saw that the back of the toilet was indeed sitting a good foot away from the wall, where it ought to be. The stool was bolted to a square piece of flooring that was no longer neatly covering the square hatch below. I scooted the stool out to the middle of the floor, looked down the hatch. Basement access?
This is a trailer, dumb-ass. Probably just a dope hidey-hole down there. The question is whether he kept pooping in this toilet after he disconnected the drain . . .
Two feet below the hatch was the gravel and dirt surface under the trailer, interrupted by a hole that had been dug into the ground wide enough for a man to drop through.
An old well? Wait a second . . . there’s light down there. Did this man get his shovel and just dig himself a trailer basement some weekend?
There was a roll-up ladder leading down the hole, the kind some people keep by their bedroom windows in case of fires.
Yeah, climb right down there, dumbass. It’s not like a man spontaneously exploded just feet from this spot or anything. Go down and be a meal for the infamous Midwestern Tunneling Explodebear.
But John sent me here for a reason. Maybe a retarded reason, knowing John, but I had come this far. I thought about him, thought about spending the rest of my life without him, and a moment later I was sitting on the linoleum floor, dropping my legs down through the hatch. I tried to look down the hole, could only see that, as I thought, there was an open, lit space down there. I grabbed the floor and dropped my body down the mouth of the hole, finding the ladder with my feet.
The rungs were slippery with mud, and the dirt stank like mold all around me. As I went down, I was hit with another smell so strong it seemed to generate its own warmth. Sharp and rotten and fecal.
The hole went down about twice the length of my body before my feet were hanging in a dim, earthy chamber that seemed big enough to stand in. The stench got stronger, and when I dropped down my feet splashed in a slimy puddle of Robert Marley shit.
I stood straight, kicking crap off my shoes. My head brushed a surprisingly smooth ceiling. The room was almost perfectly round, a diameter about the width of the trailer. The light was coming from one of those camping lanterns, on the floor next to the curved wall on my left. An odd, low, rumbly sound emerged from somewhere, seemingly from every direction at once in the round room.
I looked around quickly.
Shapes, on the floor.
I stepped over and picked up the lantern, scanned the room, fully expecting to find at least three corpses. All I saw was a pile of junk off to one side, including a broken television and what looked like yard compost with something like twigs sticking out here and there. There were a couple of empty jars along the wall near it, faded pickle labels on each. There was something that looked like a long duffel bag lying against the wall on the opposite side.
I stepped slowly toward the duffel bag thing, saw with horror that it was something like a huge, fat caterpillar, leathery and probably five feet long. It was segmented like an earthworm, the end a puckered circle of tiny teeth. I would have run away shrieking like a banshee at that point, but the thing was so over-the-top gross that I was sure it was something he made. A sculpture or whatever. And it wasn’t moving, obviously. I would have mentioned that by now.
Just to be sure, I stepped forward very slowly and nudged the worm thing with my foot. Nothing. Maybe a novelty pillow of some kind. I watched it for a moment longer and then carefully backed off toward the junk pile. On the way, I took a glance at the walls, wondering if this dirt chamber was going to collapse without supports. Covering the strangely smooth dirt was a clear, wavy substance like glass or ice. I can’t tell you what it felt like because I didn’t even consider touching it.
I glanced nervously at the worm pillow one last time, then stepped back and slipped in something slimy again. A little wet pile of what I thought were sausages. On closer inspection, I saw they were fingers.
Four severed digits, along with strips of flesh and bare bone. They all had an odd, misshapen look, as if they were somewhat melted.
My windpipe closed. My heart tried to punch through my sternum.
I took two steps backward, covered my mouth with my hand and tried to calm myself.
Get out get out get the fuck out—
I took long, slow breaths. I tore my eyes off the mess on the floor and walked to the other side of the room.
I arrived at the large pile of random junk, including the gutted television. I was startled to see the TV was on. There was a shot of what looked like a view through somebody’s intestines, like when doctors send those little cameras in there.
Then the shot changed to a picture of a twentysomething guy with long blond hair who looked vaguely familiar. He was sitting casually in a living room chair, talking to someone off-camera who was referring to him as “Todd.”
The scene flicked again, showing a blurred, uneven first-person shot of a car moving down a residential street.
The rumbling stopped. I stood straight, looked around. The worm thing—wasn’t it closer to the wall before? Nah.
I turned back to the TV setup. I couldn’t see a power cord leading up and out of the chamber but figured maybe there was a car battery or something hidden in there somewhere. I looked closer at the pile of what I had mistaken for twigs and saw it was a sticky collection of some unknown, uh, something. The back of the television had been removed and a strip of what looked like red seaweed led out of it and into a large, dead fish. The gut of the fish had been slit open and bulging out of it was a pink, wet mass of something the size of a basketball, like its innards had swollen to fifty times its normal size. Close to it was an aquarium tank filled with a thick, yellowish substance that could have been slug slime and at the bottom was a wrinkled grayish mass that could have been a human brain or possibly a meatloaf.
I had the awful realization that I was looking at a machine of some kind and just when I thought nothing here could surprise me, I looked into the television screen and was proven wrong.
A trailer—this trailer—was on the screen.
Small, as if being seen from a distance.
But getting bigger.
The viewer moving closer.
Somebody’s point of view, heading this direction. If the feed was live, just a minute away.
I turned, stepped forward, fell flat on my face. The lantern crashed to the floor, rolling, sending light and shadow dancing over every surface. It gave me a quick, strobe-light view of the huge slug thing I had tripped over, which was now resting under my splayed legs. It had moved out to the center of the room with startling speed.
I could feel the thing warmly pulsing and quivering under me, its soft mass giving under my legs. I kicked off of it, pushing backward on my ass, saw the thing squish its way after me. The lantern went out, casting me into a darkness broken only by the soft glow of the mutant television and a shaft of yellow light from the bathroom above.
I could hear the thing sliming around me, felt it near my face. I stumbled to my feet, slipped in the huge pool of shit in the center of the room, back onto my ass, bouncing my head off the hard ground. I got up on my hands just as a heavy weight like a canvas bag filled with meat landed on my chest.
The fucking thing had jumped on me.
A hundred-pound bag of slime compressing my lungs.
I waited for it to bite my face off.
A few seconds later, the low, rattly sound resumed.
After a long moment I realized that it had gone to sleep. I gently rolled the snoring creature onto the floor, careful not to wake it. I very quietly stood and jumped halfway up the ladder. In ten seconds I had my palms down on the sticky bathroom floor, shoulders brown with what was hopefully mud, pants stained with shit. I decided right then I would leave and go home and watch some TV and drink a—
I almost pissed myself. It was a faint sound, from the other end of the trailer. The kitchen end. I stepped into the hall, expecting to see a flame-shooting vampire, a hybrid squid/clown, the Devil himself.
A heavy sound, violent. Adrenaline set my muscles on fire and, like a dumbass, I moved toward the sound. Definitely from the kitchen. In seven steps I crossed the Robert Marley estate.
My shoes hit linoleum. I looked around the counter, floor and appliances. No elves, no gremlins, no nothing. Not yet.
Dead silence. I realized I was holding my breath. I realized I was not holding a weapon. I glanced around for something like a knife—
No. The freezer section at the top. The little door up there rattled with the sound, like it was bumped—
—from the inside.
Get out. Get out, David. Go. Go. Go. Go. GO. GO. GO!
With one last thump, the freezer door flew open.
A round, frosty lump the size of a coffee can tumbled out of the freezer, fell to the floor, rolled to a stop two feet away from me. I stared at it, stared into the open, empty freezer. I steeled my courage—
—then turned and ran my ass off.
I stomped toward the exit, made it in three flying strides. A half second before my hand would have ripped the knob off the front door, I happened to glance out the window and see a sedan parked out there where none had been before. Plain white, but too many antennas.
Somebody getting out.
Fucking Morgan Freeman.
He walked toward the front door, ten feet away from me. I spun around, searching for a back exit. Even if there was one, it would mean stepping over the possessed jar or whatever had rolled out of the freezer, which was now sitting on the tile, rocking back and forth, steaming faintly. I saw now the thing was a bundle of duct tape, something wrapped in layer after layer of the stuff.
A look back outside. My cop friend was coming this way, pausing to turn and look back over his shoulder at something I couldn’t see. What would I say when he came in? I can usually cobble together a pretty good lie if I have a couple of hours to plan—
A hollow snapping sound, from the freezer jar. The thing hopped an inch off the floor and so did I when I heard that sound.
It did it again, jumped higher.
Shit, like something trying to punch its way out from inside—
That’s how I spell the sound of a doorknob turning. Morgan was just two feet away from me now, on the other side of a door-shaped piece of imitation wood, coming in. I ducked down, looked at the jar now with hope that the leprechaun or demon or whatever jumped out of it would distract the cop from asking the rather obvious question of why the hell I was here after walking out on my interrogation. I braced myself for what was sure to be one of the more awkward moments of my life.
The doorknob snapped back into place, released from the other side. I risked a look through a living room window and saw Morgan looking away, toward the gravel driveway and this time saw what he saw: a white van pulling in, parking next to his cruiser. Big logo on the side. CHANNEL 5 NEWS. A guy stepped out of the driver’s seat, hauling out a camera and a folded tripod, and a pretty reporter emerged from the passenger side. Not only was I about to be discovered lurking around a restricted crime scene, but my arrest for said offense was about to be broadcast on live television. It would literally be the worst job of secretly sneaking into a restricted area in recorded history.
POCK! POCK!! POCK!!!
There was a bulge now on the side of the jar or whatever it was, strands of duct tape fibers popping out in the center, giving under the strain. All of a sudden being arrested didn’t seem so bad and I should have ducked outside with my hands raised high in surrender. But fear kept my ass Velcroed to the carpet. The jar convulsed, and again I wished I had a weapon, preferably a flamethrower.
Outside, I could barely hear cop and reporter having a terse forced-politeness contest.
“Hi, I’m Kathy Bortz, Channel Five—”
“—All inquiries go through the captain, you’ve got the number. It’s all cleaned up in there anyway, you missed the really good pictures by a few hours—”
She may have missed the story, Morgan, but I bet she’d be pleased to capture a live shot of whatever was about to happen to me.
Here’s exclusive Channel 5 video of a local man having his brain eaten by a winged gremlin. Local gremlin experts warn that—
The jar erupted, ejaculated, gave birth in a cloud of stringy tape bits. A shotgun hole blew out from the guts of the can and a little blur of an object zipped out and bounced off the paneled wall above me. The offspring fell to the carpet, bounced and landed next to my shoe.
A little shiny metal canister, the size of a pill bottle. Not moving or growling or glowing. Just sitting.
I stared dully, then forced myself to crane my neck up and around to see the scene outside, the cop turned right toward me, gesturing. I threw my head back down out of the way, sat down hard on the carpet with my back against the wall.
He saw you. Did you see the flicker of surprise on his face? He caught a glimpse of your head looking out from the trailer window. Dumbass.
I looked at the little metal vial, scooted back from it. Are those footsteps I hear outside? I raised my foot to kick the vial away, then reconsidered.
You know what’s in there, right?
Nope. No idea.
You know Robert had a stash of the shit that infected John . . .
Faint voices, from outside.
“What part of ‘no comment’ do you not fucking understand?”
Closer than before?
. . . and if he had a stash, he couldn’t just cram it under his bed. That black shit moves. It has a will, an attitude. It bites.
And then I realized, all at once, what I had come here for. John led me here, of course. When I was on the stuff, the little hit in my bloodstream I got when it attacked my thigh, I could communicate with—
—with John. When it wore off, I could not. My one chance to save him lay inside the bottle, wicked as it apparently was.
I picked up the bottle, cold as an ice cube. I found a seam and twisted the top half off, expected black oil to ooze out.
Instead, out tumbled two tiny, cold pebbles. Perfect and black in my palm, like two coal-flavored Tic Tacs. The same stuff, I figured, in convenient capsule form for those who are afraid of needles.
You’re afraid of needles.
If it had been a hypodermic, you wouldn’t have even considered putting it inside you. How convenient.
I closed my eyes, steeled myself like the first time I did a shot of whiskey.
It knew. And what is it you’re doing, exactly? For all you know, this stuff oozed out of a crashed meteor. You’ve found it in the home of a dead man, after following a trail of dead bodies to get here. So go ahead, put it right in your mouth, dipshit.
I hesitated, felt an itching in my palm where the capsules sat. I could hear nothing from outside, which fed a little sprout of hope that maybe everybody had just left.
If you do this, there ain’t no turning back. Somehow you know that.
I felt the itch again, a crawling sensation on my palm. I looked down and saw the capsules sitting innocently and then—I saw them move. Wriggling in my hand like a couple of fat, black maggots. I flung them to the carpet, flailing my hand around like it was on fire. I stumbled to my feet. The things twisted, changed, grew tiny little black limbs.
Two flat appendages grew out of one of the capsules, began to twitch, move, flap. A blur now. Wings. The black blob made a terrible, insectile fluttering sound against the carpet. Then, the Tic Tac launched itself at me, a faint, dark streak.
I didn’t realize my mouth was hanging open until that moment and if I had known I would have closed it, I assure you. In an instant the thing was skipping off my tongue and landing as a horrible, twitching tickle on the back of my throat. I coughed, hacked, convulsed. The soy sauce insect crawled down my esophagus. I felt its little tingly legs all the way down to my gut.
I opened my eyes, looked desperately for the other one. Hard to spot on the dark carpet—
It buzzed, it flew. So fast it vanished from my sight. I clamped my lips shut, slapped my hand over my mouth for good measure. The thing landed on my left cheek and without thinking I brought up my other hand and swatted it like a mosquito.
Pain. An acidic burn, an iron from the fire, jammed into the soft skin under my eye. I suppressed a scream, brought my hand away from my face and found it bloody.
The stab of agony in my cheek became a bright, broad ache that seemed to radiate down to my toes. A pain so big my mind couldn’t wrap itself around it, mixed with a weird, buzzing itch that comes specifically with tearing flesh, the feel of whole nerve endings torn from their roots and tossed aside.
I tasted the copper flow of blood in my mouth, felt something moving over there . . .
OH SON OF A MOTHERFUCK THE FUCKING SOY SAUCE IS DIGGING A FUCKING HOLE INTO MY FUCKING FACE.
I fell flat on the floor, thrashing and rolling like a seizure. I forgot where I was, who I was, everything in my mind vaporized by a hydrogen bomb of panic.
OH THIS HURTS THIS HURTS THIS HURTS I CAN FEEL THE THING CRAWLING ACROSS MY TEETH NOW OH SHIIIIIIITTTT.
My face and shirt were wet and sticky with blood. I felt the second intruder crawl across my tongue and down my throat, felt my stomach wrench with disgust. I heard footsteps just outside the door now, felt relieved, knew I would throw myself at Officer Freeman and beg him to take me to the emergency room, to pump my stomach, to bring in an exorcist, to call in the Air Force to bomb this whole town into radioactive dust and bury it under sixty feet of concrete.
And then, calm.
I again felt that sensation from the police station, the radiating energy pulsing from the chest out like that first swallow of hot, spiked coffee while standing outside in the dead of winter. The soy sauce high.
The doorknob began to turn. Morgan was coming. Hell, Morgan was here. I wanted to run, to duck, to act. Frustrating. The body is slow, so slow—
And just like that, I was outside my body.
It was so easy for me, I almost laughed. Why hadn’t I caught on before? I had a full 1.78 seconds before the detective would step through the door. The only reason we would normally perceive that span as being a short amount of time is because the wet mechanism of our bodies simply can’t accomplish very much in that span. But a supercomputer can do over a trillion mathematical equations in one second. To that machine, one second is a lifetime, an eternity. Speed up how much thinking you can do in two seconds and two seconds becomes two minutes, or two hours or two trillion years.
1.74 seconds until confrontation time now, my body and the body of my nemesis frozen in the moment, on opposite sides of the door, he with his hand on the knob, me on hands and knees in suspended agony.
Okay. I needed a plan. I took a moment to mentally step back, to assess my situation. Think.
You are standing on the thin, cool crust of a gigantic ball of molten rock hurtling through frozen space at 496,105 miles an hour. There are 62,284,523,196,522,717, 995,422,922,727,752,433,961,225,994,352,284,523,196,571,657,791,521,592, 192,954,221,592,175,243,396,122,599,435,291,541,293,739,852,734,657,229 subatomic particles in the universe, each set into outward motion at the moment of the Big Bang. Thus, whether or not you move your right arm now, or nod your head, or choose to eat Fruity Pebbles or Corn Flakes next Thursday morning, was all decided at the moment the universe crashed into existence seventeen billion years ago because of the motion and trajectory of those particles at the first millisecond of physical existence. Thus it is physically impossible for you to deviate—
I never finished this thought.
I was no longer in the trailer.
Sun. Sand. A desert.
Was I dead?
I looked around, saw nothing of interest except brown and brown and brown, spanning from horizon to horizon. God’s sandbox. What now? I thought of John’s ramblings his first hours on the sauce, saying he kept falling out of the time stream, everything overlapping.
I saw movement at my feet. A beetle, trundling along in the sand. I figured this might mean something, so I watched it, followed it as it inched along the desert floor. This went on for approximately two hours, the bug heading steadily in one direction. I had begun to form a theory that this beetle was some kind of Indian-vision spirit guide meant to lead me to my destiny—then it stopped. It stayed in one spot for about half an hour, then turned around and began crawling back the other direction.
In a blink, I was somewhere else.
A chain-link fence.
Brown, dead grass.
People around me, in rags like refugees.
This was getting ridiculous. I stood there for a moment, baffled. I remembered John again and was determined to keep my head, to hang on until the stuff wore off. I looked down and saw I was holding a fork, my hand stained with a gray dust, like ash.
A little girl approached me. She was deformed, filthy, a good chunk of her face missing. One eye. She studied me, then ran up, kneed me in the groin and wrenched the fork from my hand. She ran off with it, and when I looked up—
I was in a large building, very clean, and a man stood in front of me wearing a blue uniform, watching a small computer screen on what had to be an assembly line. To my left I saw a massive red sign that said NO SMOKING OR OPEN FLAME ON THE PRODUCTION FLOOR, with a cartoon explosion underneath it.
I stepped forward, noticed the guy had one of those Far Side flip calendars next to him. It was badly out of date, the current page a couple of years old.
I had to stop this, somehow. I felt like I was a swimmer, getting tossed downstream by white-water rapids. I knew somehow that if I didn’t get a hold of myself, I would drift like this, forever.
Not expecting to get a response, I said, “Uh, hey.”
The guy stirred, turned. For just a moment I thought I saw his eyes meet mine, but then his gaze swept around the room, seeing nothing. The man apparently decided he had imagined it and turned back to his monitor.
The room was full of people at various machines. It was obvious no one could see me. I was here, but I was not here. I looked down and, sure enough, could not see my feet.
My feet, I knew, were still in a trailer in Undisclosed, on a Saturday afternoon. I focused all my concentration on getting back there, to that spot, to that time, to my body. And in a blink, I was back in the trailer, on the floor. Pain in my face, stench of shit on my pant legs.
I breathed a sigh of relief, tried to remember what I had been doing, when Morgan Freeman stepped through the door and stopped cold at the sight of me.
Damn. I suck at this.
I looked up, climbed awkwardly to my feet with my hand on my bloody face, my pants stinking of Robert Marley’s feces.
The detective looked me over.
He had two red plastic gasoline cans with him.
He’s gonna burn this place down, I realized with perfect clarity.
And he’s gonna burn me with it.
Morgan sat the gas cans at his feet, then lit a cigarette. He smoked in silence for a moment, looking off into space as if he had suddenly forgotten I was there.
“So,” I began, figuring I would remind him, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here.”
He shook his head slightly. “Same as everybody. You’re trying to figure out what in the name of Elvis is going on. Everybody ’cept me. Me, I don’t even wanna know no more. I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing with these here gas cans.”
“I think I know. And I don’t think Robert’s landlord would approve at all.”
He studied my bleeding face, then reached into his pocket and handed me a handkerchief. I pressed it to my cheek.
“Thank you. I, uh, fell. On a . . . drill.”
“You believe in Hell, Mr. Wong?”
Five seconds of confused silence, then, “Uh, yeah. I guess.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why do you believe in Hell?”
“Because it’s the opposite of what I want to believe.”
He nodded slowly, as if this answer seemed to satisfy him. He picked up one gas can, unscrewed the cap, and started splashing the orange liquid around the living room.
I watched him for a moment, then took a tentative step toward the door. In a blur of movement Morgan turned, whipped his hand out of his jacket. A revolver was now aimed right at my face.
“You leavin’ already?”
My mind was still buzzing and suddenly I saw a flash from Morgan’s memory, something too bizarre to grasp. It was a scene from this morning, here at this very trailer. Blood.
And screaming. All that screaming. What the hell did you see here, Morgan?
Then I had another vision, of walls erupting in flame around me. I put my hands up in surrender and he nodded down toward the other gas can.
He said, “Help me.”
“I’ll be glad to. But first I want you to tell me what happened to John. You know, the other guy you were interrogating?”
“I figured he was with you.”
“Me? Didn’t he, you know, die?”
“Sure did. He was in the interview room and Mike Dunlow was askin’ him the same questions I was askin’ you. And your guy was muttering responses like he’s half asleep. He keeps sayin’ we gotta let you and him go, that you got to get to Vegas, else it’s the end of the world—”
Las Vegas again. What the fuck is in Vegas?
“—So finally Dunlow says to him, ‘Look, we got dead or missing kids here and we’re gonna find out what we need to know, so you’re stayin’ in this room until I’m satisfied or you die of old age.’ Your boy, when he hears that, he falls over dead. Just like that.”
“Yeah, that sounds like John.”
“And now he’s gone. Got a call from the hospital, it’s just an empty bed where he was. They figured he skipped out on payin’ the bill.”
“That also sounds like John.”
I picked up the gas can and removed the cap. Morgan put his gun away. I soaked the couch.
“You know a kid named Justin White, Mr. Wong? High school kid?”
“No. You asked me that back at the police station. He’s one of the missing, right?”
No, you know him. Think.
Morgan said, “Drives a cherry-red ’65 Mustang?”
Ah. I didn’t know the man but I knew the car. This was the baby-faced blond kid I saw Jennifer making out with at the party.
“He’s the guy who called in the—the whatever happened here. Now, this is how my day started. Just so you understand me, so you understand my state of mind. Okay? Kid calls nine-one-one in a panic, hysterical, talkin’ about a dead body. This was about four in the morning. I happened to be two blocks away at the time. So I race over and I’m the first one there and from outside I hear screamin’. And there’s people runnin’ away, kids peelin’ out in their cars. Party that went bad and all that.”
He stopped splashing the gasoline and sat the can on the ground. He stared off into space for a moment. He sucked some inspiration from his cigarette butt and spoke again.
“I go up to the door, I tell ’em it’s the cops. I go inside and I see—
—I was there. Just like that.
I was still in the trailer, standing in the exact same spot. Only the pain in my cheek was gone, and horrible rap/reggae hammered my ears from a floor stereo across the room. The light was different and a glance toward a window told me it was night. I looked down and again couldn’t see my feet.
Here, but not here.
It was like somebody had hit rewind on the trailer, the playback from about twelve hours ago.
The room was full of people. I spotted the faces of Jennifer Lopez and Justin White in the crowd. I scanned the room for John, but there was no sign of him. But of course he would have been gone by now, back at his apartment having a rough night of his own.
The music thumped but nobody was moving, or talking. All were standing frozen, their eyes fixed on a spot to my right. Holy shit the song was bad. It was “Informer” by the white reggae rapper Snow. “Infooooormer, younosaydaddymesnowblahblahblay. . .”
I turned to see what was so compelling as to draw a room full of frozen stares.
Robert the pseudo-Jamaican’s body was curled up on the floor, twitching. He was saying, “I’m okay, I’m okay, mon! Just give me a minute now! I’m feelin’ better!”
His words would have been more reassuring if his head hadn’t been separated from his body, laying a good two feet away from the shredded pink stump of his neck.
The disembodied head kept offering reassurances, the head scooting around the floor slightly with each movement of his jaw. One of Robert’s arms came free at the shoulder, landing softly on the carpet. I realized with revulsion something was wriggling in the exposed guts, like worms.
The party turned into a stampede.
I jumped as some girl ran through me, passing through where my body should be. Everybody was circling around Robert, trying to get to the door while avoiding the infested, oozing mess and—holy shit is this song bad. It was like the singer was stabbing my ear with a dagger made of dried turds.
The music stopped abruptly. Somebody had knocked over the stereo.
I saw Justin in the corner, screaming into his cell phone. “I said he’s dead! And he’s talking! But he’s also dead! Just fucking get down here and you can see for yourself!”
I watched the partygoers spill out of the door, but never saw Jennifer pass me. I turned and saw the back of somebody heading the opposite way, down the hall. No door down there, dumbass.
But there is a basement under the bathroom.
There was a sound like a garbage bag of pudding dropped off a tall building onto a sidewalk.
Robert had erupted, chunks slapping off the walls in every direction.
Justin let the phone fall from his hand. His mouth hung open. The room had emptied, now just him and the pink pile of what was left of the Rastafarian drug dealer, together in total silence.
A single white insect appeared. It circled above the wet wreckage of Robert’s former body, a white streak, creating the faintest buzz in the silent room.
The insect was joined by another. Then two more.
The sound grew. A high-pitched noise somewhere between the chattering of angry squirrels and the screech of locusts.
Dozens now. Each time I blinked, the swarm doubled in size. The bugs were long, like worms, and flew horizontally. Too many to count now, a swirling cloud above the spilled flesh.
I wanted out of this room, out of this town, off this planet. I had no means to move. It was the nightmare we’ve had a thousand times, a horror we can’t run from because the horror has swallowed us whole.
The sound grew with the swarm, I could feel it, it had a gut-level power like the pulse of John’s music at the party last night.
Then, in unison, the white swarm flew toward Justin.
The door burst open—
—I blinked, and saw Morgan in front of me. The stench of gasoline flooded my sinuses. Back again.
“I come through the door and this kid, Justin, he’s on his hands and knees and just wailing. And I think he’s been stabbed in the gut but I look closer and he’s got something on him. All over him, his arms and his face.”
Morgan left the cigarette in his mouth as he spoke, the paper burning away, leaving a quarter inch of ash dangling off the end. Gasoline dripped off the wallpaper around me.
“It looks like, like thick hairs. All over him,” he said. “White, maybe like pipe cleaners, or little twisted bits of fishing line. And they’re on his eyelids and ears and neck and arms and this guy is screamin’, on his hands and knees, just shrieking like a little kid. And I see these things in the air, too, buzzing around him.”
A half inch of ash hanging off his cigarette now. My eyes moved from it to the gasoline-soaked floor at his feet.
“And man, I am frozen there, in the doorway. I mean, I look over and on one side of the room I got a guy sprayed all over the walls like he stepped on a land mine and then there’s this, and I should go try to, try to render some assistance but I don’t wanna touch him. I don’t want whatever’s on him on me.”
Morgan’s words trailed off again. He looked down at his own hands, as if to make absolutely sure they were clean.
The long hunk of ash fell off of his cigarette, onto the wet carpet below.
It went out with a soft hiss.
Morgan said, “Then I did what I shouldn’t have done: I ran back out to my car and called for the ambulance. I mean, it’s already on the way and I should a stayed in and, I don’t know, found a can of bug spray or somethin’ or dragged the guy off into the shower and washed these things off him but I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself because of the way the guy was screamin’. But not just that. Bugs, even biting bugs, I’ll handle if I got to. But I could . . .”
He paused, testing what he was about to say in his own head. “I could hear them. Inside me. Do you understand?”
I didn’t, but found myself unable to speak. He opened a closet, doused the contents with gas.
“So I go to the car and I call it in and I’m real vague about what’s goin’ on, okay? I got a can of Mace in the car and I grab it and I head back inside and I’m thinkin’ I should call a hazmat team, guys who could come in and, I don’t know, seal this place off, disinfect it. But I gotta try to help this guy first and I rush back inside, and . . . he’s fine. Just like that. He’s standing there fixin’ his hair and there’s no sign of these things nowhere, the bugs or whatever. And this kid, Justin, he starts talkin’ like normal, like I just got there.”
I went down to the bedroom, threw open the door and, without looking in, tossed in the half-full gas can. I shut the door behind me. Morgan saw me, smiled.
“Yeah, you saw that. That painting. That’s messed up, ain’t it? Ain’t no man who could do that. And I tell ya what, you stay in there long enough, that mural gets inside your head. The dude that was takin’ pictures of the crime scene, he went in there for half an hour. He had to be dragged out and he was cryin’. Like a little baby.”
I said nothing.
He went on. “So the ambulance gets here, and the kid says he’s fine but I put him in it anyway, told the guys the kid maybe had somethin’ in his blood that could kill him any second. I mean, I know this kid is . . . infested, I guess. And I wanna know what this stuff is, but I never found out because the kid never arrived at the hospital. That ambulance took off from here with sirens and lights and it’s goin’ to St. John’s, which is just ten minutes away. Ambulance crew shows up there forty-five minutes later, laughin’ and jokin’ and carryin’ fast-food cups, and the kid is nowhere in sight. They ask the two guys what happened and they got no idea what anybody’s talkin’ about. No memory of any of it. Nobody’s heard from the kid since and when they go back out to the garage they find the effing ambulance is gone. They still ain’t found it. So, do you understand the kind of day I’m havin’?”
I wiped my cheek with the handkerchief, now deep red and sticky. My hands stank of fuel. I tried to process all this, still studying the carpet, wondering if maybe there wasn’t a swarm of alien bugs zipping around under the subfloor.
“So,” I said, “can you, uh, hear anything? Right now? Like they’re still hanging around in here?”
“Not since I got back.”
“But you’re gonna burn the place down just to make sure?”
“And you’re not gonna let me go.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “Those things that were on the guy? I been describing them like they were bugs or worms or something, you know, something you’ve seen before. But when they flew, I had one fly right across my face, okay, and they didn’t have, like, wings or anything. They had this little row of bristles, spiraling down their length like a barbershop pole. They sort of twisted through the air like that, headlong. A corkscrew motion. And the ones that were on the guy, on his skin? That’s what they were doin’ I think, turnin’ and drillin’ themselves into him. You understand?”
“You don’t think they were from this world.”
“You said it, I didn’t. I said I heard them, it’s like a, like a chittering I guess. You hear it, you don’t hear it really but you just get the sound in the middle of your head, like an itch. It’s not so much like a swarm of bees but more like a crowd, a crowd at a concert because you can pick out words and, I say it out loud and it sounds insane, but you can hear them talking to each other, coordinating. And more than that, you can hear their hate. Okay? I want you to understand this. I want you to understand what I’m about to do.”
“I think I do.”
The survival part of my brain was scrambling for a plan to get the cop’s gun or at least get away from him, but in my current clarity of mind I realized the certainty of it all. The man was going to shoot me and leave me here, no matter what I did. I was just waiting for it now. An odd feeling.
“So,” he said, a kind of slow panic creeping into his eyes, “you understand my mood. You understand why I’m out committin’ felonies today. There are dark things happenin’ and I got the real lonely feeling like I’m the only one who knows, the only one who can do anything about it.”
Morgan moved toward the door, blocking my exit. He sat the gas can down, almost empty now, and gestured to it. “Pick it up, and toss it out the door, in the yard.”
I hesitated, the detective put his gun on me again. I did as he asked. He pulled out his lighter once more and, holding it in one hand and his revolver in the other, ignited it. The gasoline fumes burned my nose now and I was getting light-headed.
Standing there, a little yellow flame flickering in his hand, he said, “You know, everybody’s got a ghost story. Or a UFO story or a Bigfoot story or an ESP story. Sit around a campfire late at night and you won’t find one janitor who ain’t seen a glowing old lady roamin’ the halls in the middle of the night or maybe a hunter who’s seen a pair of leathery wings flappin’ out of a tree, somethin’ way too big to be a bat. Or just somethin’ simple, like a little kid at the store who goes around the corner and disappears into thin air a second later. And nobody thinks it’s real because they figure nobody else saw it, but everybody’s got their story. Everybody.”
He gazed into the lighter flame as he spoke, as if mesmerized. His gun was pointed at the floor and with a soft double-click his thumb pulled back the hammer, as if on its own.
“Now what I think,” he said to his lighter, “I think all that stuff is both real and not real at the same time. And I think the people who see it and the people that don’t are both right. They’re just like two different radios, switched to different stations. Now I ain’t no Star Trek fan and I don’t know about other dimensions and all that. But I am an old Catholic and I do believe in Hell. I believe it ain’t just rapists and murderers down there; I believe it’s demons and worms and vile things that wouldn’t make no sense to you if you saw them. It’s the grease trap of the universe. And I think somehow, through some chemistry or magic or some voodoo, that faux Jamaican S.O.B. opened the door into Hell itself. He became the door.”
I nodded, opened my mouth to say something, then closed it again.
“And me,” he said, nodding to himself. “I intend to close it.”
He raised his gun and shot me in the heart.
I woke up in Hell. Darkness and pain, time standing still. No wailing, though. I was sure Hell would have wailing.
A creak, a floorboard. And then a FLUMPH sound, like a lit gas grill.
I blacked out.
I came back. How much time had passed? I smelled smoke, was sure I was in Hell this time. Or was I dreaming?
I forced my eyes open, my nose filled with an acidic itch. I was disappointed to find Hell had a cheap tiled ceiling, some browned with water damage.
My chest hurt. Stung. I was shocked to find I still had an arm and could move it. I felt a wet patch right in the middle of my shirt, winced with the pain. I was cold all over, and vaguely realized I was in shock. I thought of Frank Wambaugh.
Frank worked on the Worthington Munitions production line in Plano, Texas, for eleven years. The company manufactures over one hundred types of cartridges for hunting, sport shooting and law enforcement. A couple of years ago Frank was manning his station as a third-line inspector, the last step in a meticulous quality control process. Defective bullets at Worthington are measured in parts per billion, thanks to that three-tiered inspection system and to the fear of legal liability should one of their cartridges explode in a policeman’s face.
Nonetheless, there was a bad bullet among the half-million .38 caliber rounds produced that day at Worthington, thanks to a fly that crawled inside one of the casings as it passed from the machine that added its pinch of propellant. The defective fly bullet was the only one that day to pass by both of the first two inspection stations unnoticed. Frank would have spotted it, but at the exact moment the possible defect error displayed on his screen, Frank was distracted by a man behind him.
When he satisfied himself that he had imagined the spoken “hey” that, upon reflection, he heard more in his head than with his ears, he returned to his work and was none the wiser. The defective round thus passed unnoticed, was packaged, sold through a law enforcement catalogue eight months later and finally distributed to Detective Lawrence “Morgan Freeman” Appleton six months after that.
A year later Freeman loaded said cartridge into his revolver and fired it into my chest. The projectile had only a fraction of the normal propellant and thus less than one tenth of its usual impact force. The bullet had punched through my skin, scratched the thick bone over my heart and bounced off.
I opened my eyes, didn’t remember blacking out again. So tired. Waiting for the flames now. I raised my head and saw the couch was a bonfire, black smoke rolling up to the ceiling. Fire licked the paneling and it bubbled and blackened under its touch. The carpet below the couch was saturated with high octane. The moment a spark fell it would—
I was moving, just like that, crawling on hands and knees. Damn, smoke filling in so fast now, like breathing wads of hot cigarette butts. Gotta get to the door, gotta get to the door. Can’t see shit. I saw something that looked like a door, reached out, touched smooth metal. Refrigerator.
I had crawled in the exact wrong direction. I turned, crawled. Felt along the wall. Carpet on fire now. Shit, hot as hell in here. I crawled. Crawled and crawled. Ah, here’s the door. Thank God. I reached out.
My skin burned, pulled tight on my skull. The place was an oven, a blast furnace. Is that my hair burning? I squinted around. The living room was an orange blur behind me. Could I even make it through there now?
I felt this weird twitching in my chest and realized I was coughing. I lowered my head to the linoleum, hoping to find a few inches of fresh air down there. So tired. I closed my eyes.
This is the fact the world desperately hides from us from birth. Long after you find out the truth about sex and Santa Claus, this other myth endures, this one about how you’ll always get rescued at the last second and if not, your death will at least mean something and there’ll be somebody there to hold your hand and cry over you. All of society is built to prop up that lie, the whole world a big, noisy puppet show meant to distract us from the fact that at the end, you’ll die, and you’ll probably be alone.
I was lucky. I learned this a long time ago, in a tiny, stifling room behind my high school gym. Most people don’t realize it until they’re laying facedown on the pavement somewhere, gasping for their last breath. Only then do they realize that life is a flickering candle we all carry around. A gust of wind, a meaningless accident, a microsecond of carelessness, and it’s out. Forever.
And no one cares. You kick and scream and cry out into the darkness, and no answer comes. You rage against the unfathomable injustice and two blocks away some guy watches a baseball game and scratches his balls.
Scientists talk about dark matter, the invisible, mysterious substance that occupies the space between stars. Dark matter makes up 99.99 percent of the universe, and they don’t know what it is. Well I know. It’s apathy. That’s the truth of it; pile together everything we know and care about in the universe and it will still be nothing more than a tiny speck in the middle of a vast black ocean of Who Gives A Fuck.
I realized the heat was gone. The sound was gone. Everything was gone. Just darkness.
That wasn’t right, darkness would have been something. This wasn’t even that. Was I dead?
It was the same detached sensation from before, the feeling of floating across worlds without my body. Only there was nothing to see here, nothing to feel. Only . . .
I was being watched. I knew it. I could sense it. There were eyes on me.
Not eyes. One eye. A single, reptilian, blue eye. I couldn’t see it, there was no seeing here. There was just the awareness of it. I was in the presence of something, an intelligence. I recognized it and it recognized me back. But not in the way a man sees and knows another man; it was the way a man sees a cell under a microscope. To this thing, I was the cell, insignificant under its vast, unfathomable perception.
I tried to sense the nature of it. Was it good? Evil? Indifferent? With my mind I reached out and—
I ran. I had no legs, but I ran, I pushed myself away, willed myself to escape from this thing.
I sensed heat. I was pushing myself toward an unimaginable heat but I welcomed it. I would throw myself into a lake of fire to escape that thing in the—
—Darkness. regular darkness now, the familiar back side of my own eyelids. Heat all around me, heat so intense I could barely recognize the sensation.
A low sound. Wailing?
From outside. Getting louder. A car coming. A dog barking.
Get back. Get back!
Who said that?
A thunderous, terrible noise. Glass shattering, metal screaming, wood snapping. The kitchen was exploding around me. I was flung backward and suddenly a blast of fresh air washed over my body.
I was looking at the grille of a car, my car, the Hyundai “H” symbol a foot from my face.
The car reversed itself and wrenched free of the wreckage that had been the kitchen’s west wall. There was now a rupture near the floor, frayed with tufts of pink insulation and shredded aluminum siding. I rolled myself out of the hole, fell hard onto the cool grass outside. I coughed, coughed.
I woke up what felt like hours later.
Or maybe seconds.
The trailer was a fireball behind me. I was too wiped out to appreciate that I had avoided death twice within a few minutes, first by a fraction of an inch then by a few smoke-filled breaths.
I heard a bark.
David? You alive?
That voice again, from nowhere. I struggled to my feet, saw my car sitting about twenty feet away.
Molly the dog was sitting behind the wheel. I stared at this for a good solid minute. She barked, and again I heard words in the sound.
I didn’t think it could get any stupider than the bratwurst thing, but I suspected I was about to find out otherwise. I climbed into the car, pushing Molly over to the passenger’s seat.
Molly looked at me, with concern. No, not Molly.
John looked back at me, with Molly’s big brown eyes. Molly barked, but I heard:
We’re in big fuckin’ trouble, Dave.
Listen. There are three people still alive from last night other than me. Big Jim Sullivan, Jennifer Lopez and Fred Chu. I don’t know a whole lot else because my own body ain’t workin’ so well. I know we’re all together and we’re on the move and once we get where we’re goin’, something bad, bad, bad is gonna happen.
“Wait, wait, wait. Why are you a dog again, John?”
Justin White, or the thing that used to be Justin, he’s got me. My body, I mean. He stole a vehicle. When I’m in my body I can’t see nothin’, but I can hear. It’s somethin’ big enough to hold all of us, some kind of truck. Dave, you gotta find it.
“Is it an ambulance? The cop told me he stole an ambulance from the hospital. So there are actually four still alive from last night, if you count Justin.”
No, no, no. I said there were three that were alive and I meant it. Justin White ain’t alive. He’s a walking . . . hive or whatever.
“Those things inside him, what are they?”
This threw me, and I stared in dull confusion for a moment before I noticed the dog was looking past me. I turned and saw a little brown-and-white beagle tied up next to one of the trailers.
Sorry, Dave. My grandpa used to tell me, toward the end when he was going crazy, that talking through a dog ain’t like talking through a sausage. Molly is in here with me and I gotta compete for the barker.
“Where is Justin, or this Justin Thing, taking everybody?”
I already knew the answer as soon as the question left my mouth. I said it along with the dog’s bark: “Las Vegas.”
“So what’s in Las Vegas?”
“Woof! Arrrrr-oof!! Grrrr . . .”
You know that Bugs Bunny cartoon, where they spill the ink on the floor and then climb through it as if it was a hole? I think that’s what the soy sauce is like. It’s a hole, it opens you right up. Those worms, and the other shit in Robert’s basement, the sauce let that stuff come into our world, by turning people into holes. And I think if the sauce infects enough people, in one place, it can make one single big-ass hole.
“Shit. Is it worth asking what’s going to come through the hole?”
I don’t know. But what comes through will have to feed.
I nodded. “Right. And Vegas has all those free buffets.”
Molly closed her eyes in frustration. I had never seen that expression on a dog before.
No. Listen. There’s a guy named Albert Marconi. He does these conferences on the occult, he’s having one there at the Luxor, that’s the big casino shaped like a black pyramid. We’re going to go there.
“Wait. How do you know this?”
Because it’s already happened.
“That doesn’t make any—”
CAT! CAT! CAT! CAT!!!
Molly was up in the seat, jamming her head out the half-open passenger window.
“John . . .”
“WOOF! WOOF! WOOF! WOOF! WOOF! WOOFWOOFWOOFWOOF!!!”
Cat!! Cat! Cat!!! Cat!!! CAT!! CAT!!!! CAAAATTT!!!
A filthy gray cat zipped across the trailer park, across the front of the car and off into the distance. Molly pulled her head inside and tromped over to the driver’s-side window, stomping on my crotch and shouting “CAT!!!” the whole way. It took ten minutes to get the dog calmed down, at which point she promptly curled up and went to sleep in the passenger seat.
The dog farted. I got nothing else out of her the rest of the night.