“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 lightheaded.
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.
Or so he thought. He turned, and saw no one.
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.