Riding with Shitload
I drove to a convenience store and bought a road atlas. Back in my car I unfolded it in my lap and drew out the path to Las Vegas with an ink pen. Was I actually doing this?
I knew I would need cash for gas and to replace the several vital parts of the Hyundai’s drive train that would likely shatter over the course of the long drive. I had nothing in the bank. This seemed to be a rather major problem, but within a few seconds of watching the sunset in the convenience store’s parking lot, a plan popped into my head, fully formed and alien. I had learned to accept such things in the last few hours.
This wasn’t Dave thinking.
This was soy sauce thinking.
I drove downtown, scanning the alleys until I saw a rail-thin Mexican kid standing by a Dumpster wearing a St. Louis Rams jacket. The kid was wearing the jacket, not the Dumpster. I calmly stepped out of my Hyundai, smiled broadly at him.
I had never met him before.
I had no idea what I was doing.
Without hesitation, I heard myself say, “Yo. Mikey said you got a package for me.”
What the fuck.
The kid squinted at me, didn’t move. “Who the fuck are you?”
The kid moved slightly, the bottom of his Ram’s jacket sliding up his skeletal frame. The gun sticking out of the kid’s jeans was black and sleek, looking like something that could shoot lasers. The irony that he was able to afford a nicer gun than the Undisclosed Police Department gave Detective Freeman would have amused me if I wasn’t busy picturing the kid pumping six bullets into my forehead with it.
Again, I heard myself speaking. A single word that to me, had no meaning.
My soy sauced brain had officially taken off without me. I was operating on autopilot, phrases and words scrolling up into my mind as if fed to me on a teleprompter.
The kid said nothing.
He reached into his jacket . . .
And pulled out an envelope.
He stepped up and gave me a hug, slipping the envelope to me in one smooth, practiced motion.
As the kid turned away, I slowly let out the breath I had been holding.
I would like to reiterate: what the fuck.
Back in the car, I pulled the envelope out, opened it, saw it was stuffed full of hundred-dollar bills. I had no idea what any of that was, only that speaking those words to that person would get me cash, like a complicated PIN at an ATM machine.
I counted six thousand dollars.
Without knowing my destination, I drove directly to the Merry Nation Bar and Grill, six blocks away. I went to the parking lot and glanced around, still without any real idea of what I was looking for.
I went right to a cobalt-blue Dodge pickup that I had never seen in my life. I found it unlocked, reached in, felt around under the seat.
God bless America.
I stuck the gun in the back of my pants, felt strangely comforted by its gouge into the small of my back as I sat back down in the Hyundai. Evening had set in now, on one of the longest, most retarded days of my life.
I was about to point the car west, then realized I didn’t want to drive for over 1,500 miles—
—in these shit-stained pants and bloodstained shirt.
I drove home to change, proving that even on the soy sauce, part of me was still a dumbass.
I threw the clothes in the trash and showered, paranoid the whole time, thinking I was hearing opening doors and floor creaks and murderous things bumping around outside the shower curtain. It had been that kind of a day.
I dressed and put on Band-Aids, collected my toothbrush and a comb and contact lens fluid and dumped it into my leather duffel bag.
I flung myself down the hall—
I stopped cold.
My bag fell from my hand with a soft thud.
A teenager stood there. Right in the middle of my living room, a space that had been proudly teenager-free for years.
Black Limp Bizkit T-shirt.
I said, “Justin?”
Standing there with a shit-eating grin on its face, the thing that had been Justin opened its mouth and emitted a rumbling sound, like something boiling up from his lungs. After a moment he closed it again.
He gathered himself and said brightly, “Why you frontin’ here? You know what time it is. Stop callin’ me Justin like nothin’s changed, yo.”
I pictured swarms of white worms twitching through his bloodstream and suddenly had to fight the impulse to run away screaming like a toddler.
I took a step back.
Justin took a step forward.
Buying time, I asked, “What should I call you?”
I shifted my feet, felt the nudge of the gun against my lower back. I had never fired a gun before, and certainly never fired one at a man. The thought brought cool sweat to my forehead and a hot, jittery anticipation. Not entirely unpleasant. I had felt it before.
Justin’s mouth opened again, struggling to speak words completely foreign to itself.
“Shitload. Know why? It’s because there’s a shitload of us in here. Now here’s what’s gonna happen—”
The left side of Justin’s scalp disappeared in a spray of pink brain matter. He was thrown backward, my finger squeezing the trigger as fast as it could twitch, the sound shattering the air. Little sprays of blood flicked out from Justin’s chest and thighs and gut, shots landing and backing him across the room.
I had drawn the gun in a mindless reflex, like slapping at a mosquito bite. I tasted blood where I had bit through my lip. I felt electricity inside, the buzz of the violence, sparks raining down inside my skull as if from a blown fuse.
Shitload stumbled backward one last time and fell against a wall, but kept his feet.
I pulled the trigger again.
I squeezed the trigger about twenty more times just to be sure there wasn’t another shot hiding in there somewhere. Shitload righted himself, looked down at his wounds, sighed like a man who has dropped his pie in his lap.
Oh, you’ve got to be shitting me.
I saw now that the white rods were binding up each of his wounds, forming a stitching like the back side of fiberglass. I finally realized I wasn’t fighting this kid, I was fighting those things. The fear was like lead weights in my chest.
He said, “Man, your little nine is useless against—”
His words were cut off when the empty gun I hurled at him smacked off his cheek, knocking him backward once more. He brought a hand to his face.
“Stop that shit! Don’t you know we got the same plan?”
He took a step toward me. I looked across the room. The door. The window. I couldn’t make it to either without going through Shitload.
He said, “We both goin’ to Vegas, right? You all packed up and all.”
My hand at my side, I made a fist.
“Uh, I don’t think so.”
I realized once more that I was about to enter a fight and, again, had learned no fighting skills since the last one. Only this time there was a good chance the fight would end with me feeling the opponent’s teeth ripping out my eyeballs.
He lunged. I threw a flailing punch that missed by a foot.
The Justin monster fired out a low punch, the impact exploding in my groin. I doubled over, struggled to keep my feet.
“The only difference is . . .”
He advanced and in a blur threw three more punches that each landed solidly on my balls. A heavy sickness bloomed in my gut and I fell back against a chair. I awkwardly kicked at his chest.
He caught the leg and delivered an expert crotch kick that finished me.
“. . . I’m doin’ the drivin’.”
Justin clasped both of his hands into one fist, raised it high above his head as if in victory and then with all his might brought it down on my groin.
I blacked out.
Darkness, barking and footsteps. I felt Molly’s wet nose on my forehead, then felt her walking over me. All four paws managed to hit my aching crotch on the way over.
I felt the floor moving against me and realized I was being dragged. I was hefted over a shoulder like a sack of dog food and dropped onto a metal floor. A door clanged shut, a latch clicked into place.
In the haze I felt the presence of others around me, could sense terrified thoughts darting around their minds like flies. I could sense the sauce in them, the soy sauce, I could smell it on their thoughts like alcohol on a wino’s breath.
I had a hallucination, or a vision. It was the road atlas, spread before me, the red highways tangled like arteries across the country. Undisclosed on the right, Las Vegas a red dot on the left, the line of an ink pen scratched along the highways joining the two.
We were going there because he wanted us there. Not this Justin monster, either. Who?
The soy sauce? Again I felt the presence of it in this space. Pulsing. A will of its own. The soy sauce was alive, I knew that.
But beyond it, too, there was someone else. Something else. And every dark thing I had run into was working on its behalf.
In my vision, the map rustled. The red spot marking Las Vegas pulsed, as if something was pushing it from behind. Scratching. Like an animal trying to gnaw its way through.
I was expecting to find myself inside Justin’s stolen ambulance. Instead I saw cardboard boxes stacked around me, each bearing liquor logos. There was a sweet, spoiled smell of ancient spilt beer around me.
Sitting on one stack was Big Jim Sullivan, copper hair capping 275 pounds of bulk.
You should call home, Jim. Cucumber is worried about you.
Next to Jim was a very pale and shaky Jennifer Lopez, scratched and dirty, wearing the same outfit from the party.
Lying across a row of green Heineken cases was a little, wiry man with shoulder-length hair and a goatee, whom I had never seen before and who, by process of elimination, had to be Fred Chu. He had his tattooed arms folded under his head and looked unharmed. Molly went and sat down in the middle of them, bored.
On sight of me, Fred Chu said, “Shit.”
Jennifer buried her head in her hands and began weeping softly.
Jim said, “Hey, you found Molly.”
The engine started and we jolted into motion. I raised my head and looked around the dim cargo area. Among the crude beer-case furniture the passengers had stacked for themselves was a low, unoccupied seat of boxes in the corner, as if they had known I was coming.
For some reason this annoyed me so much I almost failed to notice that sitting in the corner, cross-legged and wearing hospital pajamas, was John. He stared intently at the wall, not blinking.
Big Jim said, “We’re moving again.” He reached down and stroked Molly.
I sat up. Big Jim turned his eyes on me, said, “We heard the shots. Are you the one who hurt him? I saw his head.”
“I was aiming for his heart but, yeah, I did get him.”
Jennifer sobbed the word, “Good.” An empty, flat, bitter sound. Jim turned toward the others and said, “Okay, we got one more hostage. We can still make it, guys. Just gotta believe, that’s all.”
I pretended not to hear this, concentrated on not puking from my ball trauma.
I asked Jen, “Are you okay?”
Jen nodded. “Where’s he taking us?”
That drew stares from around the room.
Fred Chu said, “The rest of us are fine, by the way. But you gotta understand what’s happenin’ here. The guy who attacked you, he ain’t no fuckin’ man, okay? He’s been invaded by fuckin’ body snatchers or whatever.”
“—I mean if you saw what happened with Shelby. The Jamaican guy spat acid on her hand. The muscle and bone fell apart, just, like, dripped off like fuckin’ wax.”
I thought of the ache in my groin, realized I had gotten off easy.
Jim said, “Justin is—or those things inside Justin—are evil. And I mean that as a noun, not an adjective. They’re the kind of physical manifestation that could only have been spawned by the Devil himself.”
“I don’t . . . completely disagree with that.”
“Now, we’ve been praying,” continued Jim. “All of us, in a circle. Fred, Jen and me, even John, as best we could involve him. I had to threaten to beat them first but they joined in eventually. We prayed for someone to come along, to save us from whatever dark thing is up there behind the wheel. And then you showed up, like an answer. Now, you faced that thing. You stood up to it. You’ve been delivered to us, to be the voice to answer a question I have put to God over and over since this whole thing started: How do we kill it?”
“No, Jim, that’s not the question. The question is, can it be killed at all.”
I pictured the map, and the rabid thing trying to claw through. I realized the scale was all wrong. To this thing, whatever it was, the real Las Vegas, the whole Earth, all of mankind, was as insignificant as the red dot on the map. I pictured a blue, knowing eye, in the darkness.
But that’s still the wrong question, isn’t it? Maybe Justin can be killed. Maybe not. And maybe it doesn’t mean a fucking thing.
I looked toward John.
He should be the one doing the talking. He’s been waiting his whole life for something like this, just to prove the universe is as retarded as he’s always pictured it in his head. I needed John to be here, alive and unafraid. I needed him to be John.
I turned toward him and said, “Wake up.”
Nothing. I looked back at Molly, then nudged John with my foot. “Wake up. Wake up, asshole.”
More nothing. I felt eyes on me, resisted the urge to punch John right in his stupid catatonic face.
“Look, we fucking need you. Now wake up.”
“Hey.” A soft voice, from behind me. I turned and Jennifer Lopez’s wet eyes met mine. There was sympathy there, and I felt a tug from inside. Though that could have been one of my testicles detaching from the trauma. “Calm down, okay? You’re not helping.”
Molly stirred, looked around lazily and then trotted over to John’s frozen body. I stepped back as she nuzzled him, then flinched when I saw his hand reach over to pet her.
There was a jolt through John’s body, like an electrical shock, so fast that we could barely process the change in posture.
Suddenly he was on his feet, confused, looking at his hands like he was surprised to have them. Looking up, he seemed to see us for the first time and said to no one in particular, “I had a really vivid dream that I was a dog.”
It took John a while to come around. He knew we were in a beer truck piloted by some kind of infested evil, but seemed to have trouble adjusting to actually existing inside his body, in one physical location.
“I’ve got such a headache.” He searched his pockets, said, “Anybody have any smokes I could borrow?”
No one did. John took the empty seat, then turned his eyes on me and said, “Let’s, uh, start over. How many people do you see in here?”
“Just humor me.”
Jim said, “I know what he’s asking. They can make you see what they want you to see. John wants to make sure we can all trust our eyes. Right?”
Going around the room, I pointed out the four other residents of Undisclosed who had the misfortune of depending on John and me for their lives. Five if you counted Jennifer’s boobs separately, as I suddenly had the impulse to. Goddamned testosterone.
John nodded, seeming somewhat relieved. “Good. And yeah, like Jim said, I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t, uh, projecting, I guess. You know what I’m saying, Dave? Like that cop in the police station, the one who wasn’t really there. I wasn’t in the room but I remember it anyway, and he looked like a stereotypical cop, like a generic. Standard issue. An extra in a movie.”
Jim nodded again and I wondered how much of this same shit he had been through himself. He said, “Hollywood raised us. Your mind processes the world through a filter formed by comic books and action movies on Cinemax. That’s why kids put on trench coats and take guns to school. The Devil knows how to control us.”
Jim seemed to be seizing on the opportunity to bring up Satan in a conversation where nobody could counter him with rationalism. Devils and angels seemed pretty plausible in this context and Jim intended to ride that horse hard.
John said, “People who wake up in the middle of the night and see those big-eyed alien abductors or a ghostly old woman . . . it’s always something they saw in some movie, isn’t it? Your mind puts a familiar face on something it can’t understand. Only here, somehow it becomes real. At least to you.”
We rode in silence, I think all of us wondering what was behind the flowery wallpaper our perceptions had always pasted on the unknown. All the things the mind won’t allow us to see, to protect our sanity, or our soul, or maybe just to keep the shit out of our pants.
Fred spoke first, breaking the silence.
“Well fuck ’em. That’s what I say.”
Jennifer said, “I took a cinema class at the community college last semester. Most of the films were in French and were about people making out in coffee shops, or in apartments over coffee shops. But I don’t even have a TV anymore, so that might help.”
I closed my eyes and sighed, wishing Jim would pray for longer attention spans. “Okay,” I said, “let’s set that aside because at the moment we’re not talking about ghost stories or vampires. That thing up there in the cockpit is real, real as any of us—”
“—and it can make us really dead. Now do you guys understand what it wants with us?”
Fred said, “Man, I think he’s gonna make a fuckin’ suit of human skin, using the best parts from each of us.”
“Holy crap,” said John. “He’ll be gorgeous.”
I sighed again, rubbed my forehead with both hands. There was a very real chance that the conversation had taken a turn that would allow John to talk about his dick, which was a subject it could take hours, if not the better part of days, to come back from. Nipping it in the bud, I said:
“Nooooo. It’s none of that. Look, you know the story of the Trojan horse? A few soldiers get inside the enemy camp riding in this big horse statue, then at night they sneak out of the horse and let the rest of their army in the front gates? Well, that drug the Jamaican was on, it let something through. He became the horse. And those things, the white flying wormy things, they came through. Now they’re in Justin and now he’s looking to open the gate and let their buddies in.”
This brought silence. I scanned the cartons around us, the vague outlines of a plan forming in my head.
“I pieced it together through inductive reasoning and information relayed to me by John when he was talking to me through the dog. Long story.”
“Okay,” Fred said, accepting it readily. I sensed that I was in the presence of the king of the go-with-the-flow types. “But why us?”
“Because we were chosen,” Jim answered. “Called. And that’s all that matters.”
We were chosen all right, Jim. But not by God, unless God is a black liquid in a silver jar. Hell, maybe he is.
I locked eyes with Jim. I thought of his sister saying the Jamaican had showed up at their house. Jim, at the party, talking to Robert.
He was right there, from the beginning.
And he fucking knows more than he’s letting on.
Did he light the fuse on this whole situation somehow? Guys like him, the ones who grip the Bible so tight they leave fingernail grooves, they’re the ones who are the most scared of their dark side. Always going too far the other way, fighting for the Lord, often just because it gives them an excuse to fight.
Fred nodded and said, “So what you’re saying is, if we all die, that’s not even the worst-case scenario.”
John replied, “I’d still like to shoot a little higher than that, Freddy.”
I looked over his shoulder and scanned the cardboard boxes stacked up against the back wall of the truck. I thought for a moment and then asked John, “How much alcohol does liquor have to have in it before it will burn?”
A couple of hours later, we had a dozen full bottles lined up near the rear door, each with a bundle of wet cloth cut from Fred’s flannel shirt jutting six inches out of the opening. When the Justin monster finally stopped, we’d wait for him to open that door and light his ass up.
But the truck didn’t stop. For hours we rode in useless silence, slumped against the metal walls, drifting in and out of fitful sleep. John found a little vented slit in the side of the cargo hold and we took turns watching the world flow by outside.
The wait was Hell. Sunday morning turned to Sunday afternoon. We pissed in empty bottles, though I can’t remember exactly how Jennifer pulled that off. The view out of the little vent turned from cornfield to desert as hundreds and hundreds of miles of highway skimmed by under us.
Twenty-eight hours, nineteen minutes. That’s how long we were in the truck, all told. We found a case of Evian water at the back of the truck but our only source of calories came from warm beer, a diet for which John needed no adjustment at all.
Finally—finally—we slowed, taking multiple turns as if having entered a town.
Each of us sprang up, moving to the back of the truck. We started gathering up bottles.
The truck stopped. We all held our breath. But then it started off again, in a different direction.
We had our plan. Or, considering that the plan had come from me, we had given up and were waiting to die.
Big Jim glanced around at us and said in a low, solemn voice, “Listen, now. Because when that thing opens the door, some of us may die. And at that point, you may have a chance to run, to get away, to save yourself. But we have to stay and finish the job. Do you understand?”
We nodded. Again I was hit with the sense that he comprehended a danger far larger than the rest of us did. He continued, “I don’t think you do understand. But . . .”
“. . . You guys know my sister, who’s back home at this moment. In that big, old house. Well we’ve always had a mouse problem. And, you know, we work hard to keep the place up, to keep it clean, since our parents passed away. But you can’t keep the mice away. They get everywhere. The cabinets, the walls. I got poison set out all over the place for these things.”
Fred pulled out a cigarette lighter, flicked it once to make sure it worked.
Jim stared at the floor and continued, “Then, one day I look under her bed and she’s got a little saucer there, with bread on it. The bread’s all chewed off at the corners. She put it there on purpose.”
The truck turned again. We heard the crackle of gravel under the tires now.
Jim looked up at us again, a kind of pleading in his eyes. “Do you understand? She was feeding them. The whole time I was trying to kill them, she was trying to keep them alive.”
I pictured her back there, small and alone in that cavernous house, and I did understand. Jim fucking knew something was coming, on its way to this world, through Las Vegas for whatever fucking reason. He knew what was at stake, while the whole world, vulnerable and unaware, went about its business behind us. I just wished he would use his sister’s damned name so I wouldn’t have to keep thinking of her as Cucumber.
“John, Fred. You guys, if one of you makes it out of this instead of me, I want you to promise me something. I want you to look in on her, make sure she’s—just make sure she’s taken care of, okay? She’s smart, you know. I don’t mean she’s—it’s just she ain’t never been on her own. I want you to promise me.”
The truck turned again. Slowing.
John said, “Of course, man.”
I thought of John’s last pet, a little terrier dog that jumped out of his third-floor apartment window and died while he played video games on the couch. Yeah, Cucumber will be in good hands, Big Jim.
John flicked his lighter. The truck turned for the last time, then slowed to a stop. I couldn’t breathe.
John peered through the vent, trying to see where we were. He said, “If I die, I want you to tell everybody I died in the coolest way possible. Dave, you can have my CDs. My brother will demand the PlayStation, since I borrowed it from him a year ago, so don’t fight him for it.”
Jennifer hesitated for a long moment before whispering, “Um, there’s a loose floorboard under my bed. I keep stuff down there. There’s some pot and a little notebook with like, some guys’ names in it, and—some other stuff. If I die I want one of you to go in my bedroom and get all that stuff out so my mom doesn’t find it.”
John reached over and lit the wicks on all three of the Molotov cocktails I held. His hand was steady, mine were not.
Fred whispered, “Okay. If I don’t come back, and say they don’t got my body, like if Justin eats me or somethin’, tell everybody you don’t know what happened. Make it mysterious. And then a year later spread rumors that you’ve seen me wanderin’ around town. That way I’ll be like fuckin’ Bigfoot, everybody claiming to have seen me here and there. Legend of Fred Chu.”
John nodded, as if he were committing this to memory. He lit his own firebombs, glanced up at me and asked, “You got any final requests, in case this don’t end well?”
“Yeah. Avenge my death.”
We were positioned in a circle by the front of the door, each with a high-proof cocktail in each hand. I studied the small orange-and-blue flame dancing on the bundle of wet cloth crammed into the bottle. My heart hammered. Molly whimpered behind me.
The moments oozed out like ketchup from a glass bottle. I could hear Jim breathing next to me, felt a trickle of sweat roll down my temple.
The latch clicked and scraped. Every muscle in my body tensed. I looked down and squeezed the beer bottle in my hand.
The door slowly ground up in its tracks. A band of pale moonlight appeared at the floor, a stiff wind whistling in as the door slid upward. There he was, revealed from the shins up. Jeans and shirt and—
Oh, holy shit.
Justin looked mostly normal, skin pale under the moonlight, blond hair rustling in the stiff breeze, a pimple on his chin. Only now both of his eyes were protruding about six inches from his skull.
The pupils at the end of their new white-and-pink stalks twisted horribly in our direction, staring at us for a very long and terrible moment. We were so caught off guard by this that it killed our momentum, all of us frozen and expecting the person next to them to make the first move.
To Jennifer’s credit, she broke the paralysis by weakly tossing a flaming bottle at Justin. The Justin monster watched as it missed and bounced harmlessly to the ground, rolling to a stop. The wick flickered and went out. Shitload curled his twin optical skull-erections down and looked at the sad bottle draining its contents into the dirt. After a moment he turned back up to us and said, “Put that shit down and come with me, fools.”
He backed away from us, seeming to realize his eyes were dangling from his skull and in a series of sickening, jerky neck movements sucked them back in.
We stood there for a moment, looked at each other with a kind of deflated shame and defeat, then did what he said.
They were waiting for me, I realized, too late. They were waiting for me to push the attack, to lead them.
Welcome aboard the David Wong Disappointment Train, fuckers.
We weren’t in Vegas. A quick glance around showed we were squarely in the middle of rural nowhere. It was a windy night and in small-town Nevada that apparently means dust. Justin, the hybrid walking demon hive and Limp Bizkit fan, led us across a dusty yard onto a paint-peeled dusty porch where a pair of ancient and very dusty shoes sat mummifying in the dusty desert air.
The door was ajar and had only a perfectly round hole where the knob should have been.
Propped next to the door was a dust-covered but new FedEx box, which almost certainly was a delivery mistake since this place looked to be in its tenth year of vacancy.
Justin pushed in through the door, indifferently kicking the box inside as he passed.
As we moved inside I noticed for the first time that Justin had an old, mud-smeared glass jar in his hand and I vaguely remembered seeing it or one just like it in the Jamaican’s makeshift basement. He placed it on the floor and walked around to us one by one, arranging our bodies, seated, in a semicircle around it. I saw a speech coming and could only pray that I wouldn’t come out sounding like a white kid raised next to a cornfield trying to record interlude skits for a gang-sta rap album.
Shitload said, “This world is shit, yo.”
“How do you people be gettin’ around in this, all in these bodies and shit? You act all scared that I’m gonna kill ya, when it’s the best thing I could do for you, yo. Deadworld, man, it’s alternate layers of rot and shit and rot and shit.”
I looked around the dim group, saw moonlight from the window cracks reflecting off of tears on Jennifer’s cheeks. Big Jim had his eyes closed, maybe in prayer. Fred Chu looked around as if uninterested, stroking his goatee with one hand and fidgeting with a strip of carpet foam with the other. John was staring vacantly at a spot on the other side of the room, already distracted into a dull stupor. Molly licked her crotch.
Ladies and gentlemen: The Undisclosed Hell-Conqueror Strike Force!
To at least feel like I was doing something, I said, “Deadworld? Is that where you’re from?”
“No, dude. That’s where you’re from. It’s where we are now. This place, it’s a horror show. If the guy next to you decides to knock you out of this world forever, he can do it with just a piece of metal or, hell, even his bare hand. You blobs, you sit there, chillin’ in this room and I can smell the rot of dead animals soaking in the acid of your guts. You suck the life from the innocent creatures of this world just so you can clock another day. You’re machines that run on the terror and pain and mutilation of other lives. You’ll scrape the world clean of every green and living thing until starvation goes one-eight-seven on every one of your sorry asses, your desperation to put off death leadin’ to the ultimate death of everybody and everything. Dude, I can’t believe you ain’t all paralyzed by the pure, naked horror of this place.”
After a long, long pause John said, “Uh, thank you.”
John’s eyes never moved as he spoke, and suddenly I saw a look there, a confidence. I followed his gaze, saw what he was seeing, and then quickly looked away again.
I glanced back at the Justin monster, wondering if he had caught on. But he was busy. He twisted the lid off the old pickle jar, and a small, shriveled thing, like a dried-up earthworm, dropped out and landed quietly on the floor.
Shitload went to the kitchen and I heard him messing around with the sink in there. No water. He came back, studied our faces, and pointed to Fred.
I was so baffled by this that I wasn’t even sure I had heard him right. But Fred, having perfected going with the flow to a degree that philosophers could study for centuries, shrugged and said, “Okay.”
He stood, unzipped, urinated on the floor, zipped up and sat back down. The little black dried-worm sliver sat in the middle of the bubbling puddle. Nothing for a long time, maybe a minute.
And then, the worm twitched.
Jennifer screamed, everybody jumped.
The shriveled nothing grew. And grew. And grew.
Just add water!
A hand formed. A human hand, pink and the size of a baby’s. Stretching out from behind it, instead of an arm, was something like an insect leg. It was a foot long, springing out to length before our eyes like a radio antenna. Something like a shell took shape. I saw an eye, red and clustered like a fly’s. Another eye, this one with a round pupil, like a mammal, grew in next to it. Then another eye, yellow with a black slit down the center. Reptilian.
The thing grew and grew some more. It grew to the size of a rabbit, then a small dog, then stopped when it was about a foot-and-a-half high and maybe three feet wide, probably the same overall mass as Molly.
The finished creature seemed to be assembled from spare parts. It had a tail like a scorpion curling up off its back. It walked on seven—yes, seven—legs, each ending in one of those small, pink infantile hands. It had a head that was sort of an inverted heart shape, a bank of mismatched eyes in an arc over a hooked, black beak, like a parrot’s. On its head, no kidding, it had a tuft of neatly groomed blond hair that I swear on my mother’s grave was a wig, held on with a rubber band chinstrap.
What was strange about it, or rather, what was stranger about it was that the two sections of its body—the hindquarters and the abdomen—were not connected. There was a good two inches of space between them and when it turned sideways you could see right through the thing. But it moved in unison, as if they were connected by invisible tissue.
The little monster stood twitching there on the floor like a newborn calf, still dripping with urine.
John said, “Huh.”
Fred said, “Guys, can you all see that fuckin’ thing, or is it just me?”
The beast moved in circles, looking around the room. Justin said to us, “Don’t move. If I ask it to, it’ll kill you, yo. You don’t know what that thing’s capable of. Shit, lookin’ at the thing, I don’t even think it knows. But that ain’t my goal, I coulda capped you all back home if that was the plan. It ain’t.”
The thing turned and turned, staring down each of us, its dozen eyes blinking at different intervals. It finally stopped, looking my direction. Molly stirred behind me, a low growl rising from her.
“All I need you to do is hold still, yo. In a minute ain’t none of you gonna remember why you got all worked up and shit.”
The creature crouched, then vanished in a blur. I threw myself back, expected the monster to suddenly be on me, but it wasn’t. I heard a horrible, high-pitched yelp behind me and turned to find the monster on Molly’s back, its legs wrapped around her body, dug into her fur like steel cables.
Jennifer screamed, everyone stirred. Justin shouted at us to stay down, stay down. I watched as the thing whipped back that scorpion tail (Did I say it was like a scorpion? The freaking tail had hair on it.) and with a flick, the end was buried in the dog’s hide. The length of the tail started pulsing and twitching. It was pumping something into her.
And then it was over. The beast jumped off. Molly looked terrorized but kept her feet. I saw the tip of the monster’s scorpion tail and noticed a drip of thick, black fluid trickling out.
Wait. What? That’s where it comes from?
A burst of movement, behind me. Shuffling feet and shouts.
John was making his move, diving in the direction we had been looking earlier. He skidded on the floor and seized the white FedEx box.
Shitload was on him fast, Bruce Lee–fast. He delivered a kick to John’s gut that actually knocked him back a couple of feet. He then wrenched the box from John’s arms. Shitload looked baffled, moved to throw the box aside but stopped cold.
He looked at the label, then at John, then at me, then at the label again. I stood and moved slowly toward them.
Shitload stared at John and said, “What’s in here?”
John said nothing, looked like he wasn’t too sure himself. I moved closer still, not understanding. Shitload stiffened his arm toward John in a “Heil Hitler” motion. This confused us for a second—before a slit appeared in his palm and something like a mouth puckered there. A thin stream of thick, yellow liquid dripped onto the floor, gathering in a small, smoking puddle that quickly ate through the floorboards with a soft hiss.
“Tell me,” Justin demanded.
I looked down at the label on the box. The package was addressed to John’s real name, to this house in this Nevada town. It was dated yesterday, sent via overnight delivery, with John’s own small, neat handwriting.
“Tell me, or I’ll melt your face, yo. What is it, like, a bomb?”
John shrugged, said, “Why don’t you open it and we’ll both find out?”
Shitload sat the box on the floor, said, “Take it outside.”
“Okay.” John bent over to pick it up.
“Stop! Leave it where it is.”
He pointed to the wig monster and said, “Open the box.”
The thing apparently understood, because it trundled over and started tearing at the flap with its beak. After several long, clumsy minutes of this, during which I tried to show it the little tear strip all FedEx boxes have, it finally stuck its snout inside and pulled out a sheet of wrinkled notebook paper.
Shitload picked it up, saw scrawled on it in big ink pen letters: “JOHN LOOK BY THE BUSH IN THE FRONT YARD.”
The Justin monster turned to John and said, “What’s out there? A weapon? You tryin’ to gank me?”
John didn’t answer. Shitload pointed to the wig beast and said, “If any of you try to move, that thing will rip off all of your limbs, leave you alive and plant five hundred eggs in your belly. You down with that?”
We were. Shitload tossed aside the note and strode out the front door.
We could indeed see a bush out there, shivering in the breeze. Had John, under the influence of the sauce, somehow planted something out there ahead of time? How? And what? A gun? A pipe bomb? A trained badger? Nothing would have surprised me.
The creature formerly known as Justin White walked out to the bush and looked down, kicking around at the base of it. I glanced over at John, who waited with the same anticipation, apparently having completely forgotten the plan once the sauce wore off. The wig monster prowled around between us and I wondered if we should all try sprinting out the back door.
Outside, Justin had found nothing. He turned to walk back—
And was blown off his feet.
A thunderous boom echoed in the desert air, followed by a faint mechanical ka-chunk of a pump shotgun. A second shot sounded, then a third.
The wig beast in front of us hissed, bearing its teeth (yes, it had both teeth and a beak), seeming to know that something was amiss and that we should all be ripped to shreds immediately. We were frozen by the thing, all of us desperate to jump up and watch our salvation, but any slight shift of a limb would cause the wig thing to spin in that direction.
A figure moved toward the open door out in the darkness. The creature spun toward it and when I saw who came through, I found myself rooting for the wig monster.
Say what you want about Shitload and his disjointed pet, but neither of them either tried to shoot me or set me on fire. The same cannot be said for Detective Lawrence “Morgan Freeman” Appleton, who strode into the house loading shells into a pistol-grip riot gun.
His eyes caught the jumbled creature on the floor. He raised the gun.
The thing turned toward him and meowed like a cat. It crouched, leaned his direction and vanished right as John screamed, “MOVE!”
Morgan spun and ducked off to his right.
The wig monster appeared in midair in the spot where Morgan was standing a half second earlier, flailing its limbs in his direction. The thing tumbled to the carpet. Morgan lowered the shotgun.
A blast thundered in the room. Bits of monster flew.
Morgan racked the shotgun, ejecting a blue plastic shell. “There any more of ’em?”
Jim said, “No, but that guy out there ain’t dead.”
We all got to our feet, everyone relieved at their rescue.
Everyone but me.
I still had a puncture in the middle of my chest like a third nipple, where the good detective here had shot me before trying to roast me alive. I wondered if they noticed Morgan didn’t exactly read Justin his rights before blowing a hole in him. I mean, I did the same thing but that’s why society doesn’t let me carry a badge.
Morgan started to speak, maybe to say, “I blew a hole in his chest the size of a football, jackass, I’m pretty sure he’s freaking dead,” but then his eyes locked on mine, realizing the other guy he’d shot in the heart this weekend was now standing and breathing in front of him.
There was a moment, when my eyes met Morgan’s, when once more I got a flash of his thoughts. Nothing coherent, just fear and exhaustion and cold, deadly purpose.
In that two seconds we shared, I knew the detective’s mind was working full time to crush any remaining doubts about what he had to do. He had a mission, and had traveled across the country to carry it out. He was saving the world, and in his mind that meant that anyone dumb enough, unlucky enough, or crazy enough to take the sauce, to risk becoming a conduit for whatever otherworldly invasion was waiting to use them as a doormat, needed to die.
Morgan had a decision to make. He glanced over his shoulder, squinting into the darkness for Justin. But he didn’t turn, and he still had the shotgun pointing in our direction.
Six of us, maybe we were hostages and maybe we were hives. Maybe he had thought he’d burst in and we’d all be in Alien-style cocoons and he could just torch the place and declare it mission accomplished. But here we were, exhausted and filthy and wounded. To this day I don’t know if he was struggling with the moral implications of gunning down half a dozen civilians, or if he was mentally counting to see if he had that many shells left in the gun.
John leaned over and picked up the FedEx box. He peered inside, turned it over. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter slid out into his hand. He plucked one cigarette out, and lit it. He reached into the waistband of his hospital pants and pulled out a little bottle of some kind of brown liquor he had lifted from the truck, took a drink. I was surprised he hadn’t mailed himself a burrito, too.
I said to Morgan, “It’s a long fucking story but we’re on your side. John totally lured Justin out there for you, just now.”
Just don’t fucking ask me how.
Morgan turned, pushing back through the door, leading with the shotgun. I followed, careful not to step in the wig monster chunks scattered on the floor underfoot.
The cop was a lot more surprised than I was to see Shitload was no longer on the desert floor. He poised the gun in front of him, turning like a turret, then spun on the beer truck as it rumbled to life and rolled onto the road.
Morgan ran, ripped off three shots as the red taillights shrank into the distance. He stomped back toward us, said, “Shit!”
“I know where he’s going,” I said. “And I’ll tell you if you promise to take us with you. And not to shoot me again.”
He sucked in a breath, scanning the faces of our group. Finally he said, “Okay.”
“Luxor Hotel. Don’t ask me how I know.”
Thirty seconds later we were all crammed into Morgan’s rental SUV like it was a clown car, pealing down the blacktop.
From the passenger seat I watched the headlights swallowing up the road and said, “There’s something like a massive séance planned. It’s a guy named Marconi. Apparently Shitload—er, Justin, has business there.”
All ten of Morgan’s fingers were clamped around the steering wheel as the speedometer crept upward.
Everyone in the truck lurched first right, then left as Morgan swerved to pass a car.
“Brock Wholesale reported the liquor truck missing yesterday. I happened to catch word of a gas station attendant in Missouri who said a beer-truck driver told him he needed directions to Las Vegas, then punched him in the balls and told him his daughters would be live meat cocoons for the leech pool. Man thought that was strange, phoned it in. I just followed the same directions he gave Justin, drove balls to the wall. Then I came up on this exit and just had a feelin’, you know, like an intuition.”
The mention of “intuition” gave me a cold feeling in my gut. I glanced back at John. It got his attention, too.
“I followed my gut and there was the truck, parked by that old house.”
Morgan scratched the side of his cheek, two-day stubble sounding like sandpaper. The engine growled, the scenery sprayed past my window.
I asked, “If this thing makes it to the Luxor, what happens?”
“Let’s just say I came a long way to make sure that don’t happen.”
From behind us, John said, “If you’ve been following us since we got kidnapped, you must have been up for more than two days.”
“More like fifty hours.”
We rode silently for a minute. Less than a minute actually, according to Morgan.
“Make that fifty hours and thirty-seven-point-two-three seconds. It’s the adrenaline, I guess. I ain’t really been tired. The thrill of the hunt.”
We drove in silence for a moment. Red taillights appeared up ahead. I reached out and gripped the dashboard.
Morgan said, “That, and those loud, piercing voices in my head.”
Morgan’s eyes exploded.
He shrieked as two sprays of blood flecked over the windshield. Jennifer screamed behind me, John and Fred bellowed “OH, FUCK,” simultaneously.
Little white rods poured down the cop’s face, swirled around inside the truck. He let go of the steering wheel. I reached over and grabbed it. We left the road.
We shook, rattled, bumped. The horizon and sky swapped places in the windshield and the roof of the car bashed me in the shoulder. Glass bits rained down in my eyes and ears and up my nose, the dashboard punched me in the forehead, the roof hammered me a second time, and Molly’s furry ass rolled over my face.
Finally, the vehicle banged to a stop.
Silence. Only a soft chittering over the desert breeze. And then came the voices.