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?”
Static again. Then: “It’s wearing off. Don’t talk, just listen. Go inside and—”
“—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.