And then, one day at Taco Bell there was this old woman sitting two tables away from John, Jen and me. The old woman isn’t eating. Just sitting there, both hands holding her purse in her lap.
A group of four college kids come in, frat guys, and they sat right at the old lady’s table like she wasn’t there, one guy sitting right on her. Through her. He’s sucking on this Burrito Supreme with this old woman’s elbows sticking out of his torso the whole time. Finally she just sits up out of him and daintily walks out through—literally through—one of the glass doors.
All three of our heads were fixed right on her, even Jen’s. There was no pretending we didn’t see it, we were all staring. It was the pink elephant in the room, the thunderous fart in the elevator. Denial would have been ridiculous. We finished our food and walked out and piled in my car, then Jen put her face in her hands and cried. John had this satisfied look that I wanted to punch off his face. He knew better than to say anything.
I decided right there that I could outlast it, ignore stuff like that for the rest of my life if I had to.
I was wrong, of course.
In the summer John read on a Web site about a lady in a neighboring state who claimed she had bloodstains that kept coming back and back in this one spot in her carpet. She had it steam-cleaned back to bleach white, but a week later, there was the stain again. Then they replaced the carpet. The stain came back. They had video and everything.
John told me about it and I blew him off. Then he got me drunk and told me about it again and suddenly I was fascinated. We called the lady, told her we were experts in new carpet-cleaning techniques and asked if we could come up to take a look. So based on one moment of drunken curiosity, we wound up burning up a whole Saturday making the seven-hour drive to go check out the magical carpet stain.
We heard screams from inside the house as soon as we pulled into the driveway. We banged on the door and were greeted by a six-year-old girl holding one of those sippy cups. We walked in and saw the parents watching some award show on TV while in the center of the room lay a screaming man, a flow of crimson running from his groin and staining the carpet underneath. The mother, a pleasant, heavy woman in her forties, pointed to the shrieking man and said, “That’s the stain.”
We told her we had to get some supplies from my car, then drove away. We did a search at their local library—that is, John did a search while I curled up in a chair and went to sleep—and found a story from a few years before where a man had died after getting his penis caught in a spring-loaded mole trap he was working on. He bled to death. We went back to the house the next day, asked the family to leave the room and tried talking to the bleeding guy.
We told him it wasn’t his house any longer, that his wife had sold it, that he was staining the carpet from beyond the grave. He didn’t react to us, just kept screeching and thrashing around and clutching his groin. But after about an hour of us badgering him, he vanished. Off to wherever they go. No more stain.
The carpet family was so impressed they apparently told everybody they knew about it. They knew it wasn’t some magical detergent, either.
After that we got about a dozen calls and e-mails asking us to come check out some situation or other. We thought only one was worth checking out because it mentioned “shadow people,” but it turned out to be bullshit, a college kid with a budding case of schizophrenia. In fact, of the contacts we got over the next three months, exactly one of them turned out to be a real haunting-type thing and that was Frank Campo, the guy with the spidery car. We fixed him just by telling him that he wasn’t crazy, that the horrors he was seeing were real. He seemed oddly comforted by that. He was a lawyer.
But the rest were nothing, scared and lonely old ladies and attention seekers who thought it was better to be crazy than unnoticed.
But John and I saw things. Oh yes. By then, just walking around and going about our lives, we saw things. There seemed to be a knack to it, a tuning of the eyes. Like focusing on the dirt on your windshield instead of the road outside.
I woke up one morning to find four pairs of huge eyes peering over my bedspread, inches from my face. Short little dwarf people, standing along the side of the bed with eyeballs three times bigger than a person’s should be. I blinked. They were gone. I didn’t tell Jennifer. I didn’t tell her about any of it. I told myself it was just one more thing to adjust to. That’s what life is. Adjustment.
Then, in the fall, everything went to hell.
The Bratwurst Prophecy
IT WAS RONALD McDonald’s eyes that haunted me.
I had gotten hungry for bratwurst and had been walking toward the entrance of one of the four McDonald’s franchises in Undisclosed (if you think it’s weird getting a bratwurst from a McDonald’s, then you’re not from the Midwest). I glanced at the cartoon clown logo in the window and let out a scream.
Just a little scream, and a manly one. But I still frightened one little girl on the sidewalk so badly that she screamed, too.
I couldn’t help it. It was one of those clear plastic static signs, pressed to the inside of the glass with the cartoon image filling most of that pane. The cloud of red hair, the size sixty red shoes, the yellow suit, and the, well . . .
I reached out and brushed my fingers over the glass.
The image is so perfectly drawn, I thought. So vivid.
Other late-night customers brushed past me and cast quick, stealthy glances my way, looking at the crazy man with the beard stubble and the ruffled dark hair. But they didn’t see what I saw, I was sure of that.
No, they saw the happy clown with his arms spread wide, one leg cocked at a forty-five-degree angle with one red floppy clown shoe tipped up into the air, big smile spread across his red-and-white face, welcoming paying customers into his burger factory. I remembered it from the last hundred times I had been here.
What I saw at the moment was a clown standing there with his gut split raggedly open, as if cut with a dull utility razor. He was—how can I put this delicately? In this perfectly rendered and shaded cartoon he was using his own white-gloved hands to feed a rope of his own intestines into his mouth.
Detailed. Yes. It was very, very detailed.
But it was those eyes that got me. His expressive cartoon eyes pulsed with a terror about to boil over into madness. Tears streaked his face, sweat beaded his forehead. Those eyes pleaded with me, looked right into me and screamed to be put out of his misery. Those eyes told a story, not just of a man eating himself, but of a man being forced to eat himself.
And only I saw it.
I closed my eyes, looked again. Still there. Not shimmering like a mirage in the desert or some blur out the corner of your eye. It just clung to the window in its brazen thereness, real right down to the little plastic corners peeling up from the glass.
I turned away, tried to clear my head, to concentrate. Then I spun back at the image. There. For just a split second, I saw the normal logo, the way everybody else saw it. Happy corporate clown. Then it blurred back to the corrupted version again. This time there was text.
The usual MCDONALD’S—I’M LOVIN’ IT! slogan was replaced by a jumble of crazed red letters saying,
MCWONGALD’S—SHIT LUNCH TURDWOMAN
Some would have doubted their sanity at this point, but by now the part of my mind that issued doubts about my sanity had melted from overuse. I went back to my car and just drove around town for several hours, my appetite gone.
It had my fucking name in it. McWongald’s. What the fuck.
They haunt minds.
Someone was talking to me, from that other side. I pictured floating black figures and eyes like cigarette embers. I pictured a single blue eye in the darkness. I felt sick.
My orbit around the town finally degraded and I crash-landed at John’s apartment. I told him the McWongald’s story, hoping he’d say something like, “That’s some weird shit” and start untangling two controllers from one of his many game consoles. Instead, he said, “Get up.”
I stood and realized I had been sitting on a stack of three cardboard boxes. He opened the flaps on one to reveal that it was full of hardback books.
“Wait, what’s all that?”
“Dr. Marconi’s book.”
“You have a hundred and fifty copies of it?”
“Oh, right. You don’t remember. In Vegas, we were walking out the back and Marconi makes some comment about how we should read his book. You were all ‘fuck you old man’ and I said sure. Then I grabbed a dolly and wheeled out a whole stack. Just staring at him coldly the whole time I was wheeling them backward out the door. Daring that fucker to stop me.”
“They were free, Dave. Anyway, he says something in here . . .” John flipped pages. “It’s around the beginning somewhere. I don’t see it right now—maybe it was in a different book—but anyway he says that when you read the Bible, the Devil looks back at you through the pages.”
“What, like his Bible was possessed? Holy shit, he must have been the worst priest ever.”
“No. He says when you’re dealing with any kind of supernatural beings, Gods and Devils and angels, you tend to think about them like hurricanes or earthquakes, some kind of mindless force of nature. But if they’re real, then they have minds. They know your name. So even reading about the Devil tips him off, he knows instantly he’s being read about and that you’re somebody he may have to deal with. And I’m thinking what you did in Vegas went way, way beyond that.”
“What ‘I’ did? What about us? We were both there.”
“Yeah but I cut my hair since then. They probably think that was a different guy.”
I closed my eyes and collapsed onto John’s futon. I said, “The thing. The wig monster. Does it still come around?”
“No, haven’t seen it in months. Except about three weeks ago I was eating a corn dog, the thing appeared, snatched it out of my hand, and disappeared again. Never saw it after that.”
“No more of this. Okay? It’s over. No more chasing after this stuff. They’ve set up camp inside my head, John. It’s gone too far.”