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 ahold 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.