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.
“Sure you is.”
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.
My eyes snapped open.
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?”