“Oh, fuck you,” I said. “I’m staying here.” I sat on the ground, pulled open the box of bullets and tried to put one in the pistol. It fit. Hey, why the hell not. I started pushing rounds into the pistol magazine one at a time. “You go find the door.”
A metallic thunder filled the hall.
We all flew into action, bullets spilling off my lap and rolling in every direction.
Ahead of us something huge dropped from the ceiling, blocking our view. The clanking roar finally ended in a crash that made all three of us jump.
We advanced, guns drawn. It was one of those enormous drop-down gates that malls use to button up at closing time.
“Well,” Krissy said, “I guess this is the big door. There’s a keyhole at the bottom, near the latch.”
“All right,” said John, nodding. “All right. Big door. Sooner than I expected, but whatever. Now, that means there’s a boss behind there. A huge bad guy.”
He focused on Krissy. “I want you to be prepared for this. This evil that has Wexler, it’s impossible for us to imagine what form it’s taken with him. Expect tentacles. And a whole bunch of eyes. Or just one eye. I don’t know what exactly to expect but I know it’ll be a way bigger asshole than we faced out here—”
From behind us. We spun on the voice and I involuntarily squeezed the trigger. The gun clicked. I hadn’t chambered a round.
It was Wexler, trudging up in the shadows behind us. He looked pale but perfectly human. I posed casually with the gun, so as not to be too blatant about the fact that I had almost killed him with it just now.
Krissy moved toward him.
“Don’t,” he said. “Stay away from me. He’ll be back. Any second now, he’ll be back.”
He bent over and broke down in a coughing fit. Blood splattered the floor.
“Dude,” said John, “let’s get you to a hospital, we’ll protect you and—”
“No. Listen. I’m falling apart. I’m falling apart inside. When he comes back, I won’t hold up. Now, how much do you know about this place?”
“If you’re talking about this town in general,” John said, “don’t even get us started. We’re the experts.”
“No. No. I’m talking about the doors. This building—”
“—the doors, under it, or somewhere. I don’t know where. Hidden. This building and others, I think.”
“We can go over all that later,” I said. “Where’s the shadow man? The, you know, the thing, the one who’s possessing you? Where is he now? Is he behind that gate?”
“He’ll come back here. Let him. Let him enter me. Then kill me—”
Krissy screamed, “No! Danny!”
“—Kill me and burn my body. Then burn this place down on top of me. Find the other doors if there are more, and burn them down, too. In fact, just burn the whole town. Just to be safe.”
“Doors? I don’t get—”
Danny coughed, spat, then coughed and coughed some more, hacking until he finally passed out.
Krissy ran to him, but couldn’t get him to respond. He was still breathing, though, so we dragged him over to the wall, leaning him against it.
John and I trained our guns on him, and waited.
Krissy looked back and forth at us and said, “What are you guys doing?”
John and I glanced at each other.
“Well . . . you know,” I said meekly. “We’re waiting for the thing to come back into him so we can, uh . . .”
“We are not doing that.”
To me the guy looked to be on his last legs anyway, so this really did seem like a more reasonable plan than getting eaten by whatever monstrosity waited behind that gate. Shouldn’t we honor his final wishes?
We were unable to convince Krissy of this. She took the key and started working at the lock of the huge gate.
I sighed and went to her, the pistol clasped in both hands. John nudged her aside and knelt with his hand on the gate handle.
Krissy pulled the Taser from her pocket.
John looked up at us and said, “We stay together. Look for a weak spot, like an eye or something. If there are crates around the room, cover me and I’ll open them, see if there’s a rocket launcher or something in one of them. If either of you find a big, green, polka-dotted mushroom, set it aside. We may need it later.”
The blood, pounding through my ears again, my skull sounding like the inside of a seashell. I blinked hard to try to clear the spots pulsing in front of my eyes.
I knew this was the thing to do, but every fiber screamed to retreat and try again some other day, when we had more on our side, when I wasn’t so tired, or so nervous, or so fat. I struggled for something to cling to, the way soldiers in foxholes picture their families, or a flag.
My car, I thought crazily. This fucker crashed the Wongmobile. And for that, he must taste death.
It would have to do. I reminded myself to breathe. John pulled up the gate, rolling it up on its tracks with a sound like tank treads.
We entered a huge octagon of a room, more storefront blanks where food counters were to go. There was some broken glass and dead leaves on the ground, where one of the panes in the overhead skylight had broken out.
John gestured to our left and said, “Check it out.”
It wasn’t a monster. But still I stopped in my tracks, let out a long breath and said, “Shiiiiiiiiit.”
There was a painting on one wall to our left. On the wall, on the ceiling, on the floor, on the two-by-fours stacked next to the wall. I recognized the style.
The painting was abstract, yet strangely realistic. It was a three-dimensional picture of a ring intersecting another ring in a way that seemed to shift as you looked at it. Like the landscape I saw in Robert Marley’s bedroom, it seemed to draw you in, to take on complexity as you stared.
It’s a picture of time.
I tore my eyes off it and said to John, “I think your Jamaican friend was here.”
“I think he was actually living here.”
He nodded toward a nearby nest made up of an ancient sleeping bag and about half a dozen plastic milk crates. The surrounding floor looked like the aftermath of a bloody battle between empty Captain Morgan bottles and faded candy bar wrappers.
I thought about Wexler, ranting about hidden doors. Now here was where our guy, our Patient Zero, had set up camp all those months ago. I felt like there were dots that I was intentionally not connecting. I wanted to go somewhere warm and bright to think about all this. Or, even better, not.
I wandered out to the center of the floor, crunching glass and leaves underfoot. John lit up a cigarette and said, “Man, if you could flood this place in the winter and let it freeze up, you’d have a kick-ass place to play hock—”
A shriek, from behind me. Krissy, screeching my name.
A shotgun blast split the air.
I spun, scanning the room through the sights of the automatic.
John screamed my name, bellowing instructions I couldn’t make out. Then I saw it, the black shape zipping through the air, like a Hefty bag blown around in a hurricane. I spotted it, lost it, caught it again, then—
It vanished. I spun around. No sign of it. John and Krissy were staring at me, horrified.
“It’s okay! I’m okay! Where did it go?”
I was okay, now that I thought about it. Felt great, in fact. The adrenaline must have been working because all the fear evaporated in an instant.
A veil lifted from over my thoughts.
John and Krissy. Two of six billion humans on the planet. One American, I heard, consumes enough calories to keep forty African children alive.
John routinely burned half a gallon of gasoline to get a pack of cigarettes. The girl bought special shampoo for her dog while Somali children starved. She warded off her guilt with a gold symbol around her neck, the intersecting strips of gold the last thing millions saw before their limbs were ripped from their bodies in medieval torture machines. Two locusts, standing before me, blazing through resources by the ton.
I had been such a fucking fool.
“Uh . . . Dave?”
John dragged me here for one reason: his attention span demanded new and loud experiences, links to add to his chain of distractions until the day he would finally drink himself to death.
And the girl, I could save her life a dozen times over in this room and she would still climb into bed with the guy with the great eyes and the promising TV career. She could never contaminate her precious genetic material with mine.
When was I going to stop letting the world bleed me dry?
“Dave, can you hear me?”
Without a word, I took a step toward the pair. I kicked something metal. It was a rusty utility knife, an inch of blade protruding from the end. I stuffed it in my pocket, thinking I would need it later.
The gun aimed nonthreateningly at the floor at my side, I strode toward the girl and was pleased to see a look of crippling fear ooze into her eyes, an expression that broke those sculpted porcelain features like a hammer.
Have you ever been truly scared of anything, princess?
I had a second to look over Krissy from the neck down, those perfect thigh muscles, soft curves under softer skin. The hint of perfect little breasts hiding under the sweatshirt. I suddenly had an idea for this girl that would win my dick the Nobel Prize.
John, running toward me.
Raised the gun.
Shot him in the head.
He tumbled forward, spray of blood droplets arcing through the air as he fell face-first onto the floor.
I moved toward him, to put a second and third and fourth round into his brain.
Movement behind me—
POP! POPBZZZZZZPOP POP POP!
A crackling sound, like popcorn.
Every muscle in my body first clenched, then went slack. The tiled floor rose up and smacked me in the face.
I lay there, plywood pressed against my cheek, a bug’s-eye view of the world. I was paralyzed, my brains scrambled.
Looks like Krissy needs new shoes. Hey, look! A smashed cigarette butt!