“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.
Fred said, “Dude, how do you possibly know that?”
“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.”