“I don’t even know how I’m doing it, any of this. Right now. I see things, I hear things across time and space and . . . it’s better if you can put it out of your head, Kris. It’s better to live the rest of your life believing things like this aren’t possible. But there’s other things I need to tell you. Things I’ve been wanting to say for a long time. And if I’m still alive, I probably won’t have the courage to say them in person. But first . . .”
Wexler’s eyes shifted slightly. A chill ran down my spine.
He was looking at me.
I shifted to my left a couple of feet, and his eyes followed me.
“You’re David Wong?”
No! Say no!
“Yeah . . . I guess.”
Video conferencing across time. Man I need pie, and fast.
“I don’t know all the details, things are . . . confused in my mind right now. But you’re under the eye. You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”
I found I couldn’t answer. My mouth had gone so dry it had glued shut.
“David, you alone fully understand what is at stake here.”
A thousand questions popped into my mind but all I could do was peel my lips apart and say, “But . . . I don’t . . .” before trailing off.
“Kris and I need to have a private conversation now, okay? Glad you made it out alive.”
I BEGGED OFF from John’s offer to stay the night at his place and drink many beers with him. I was hungry, and had something else to take care of first.
I took a cab to McDonald’s and had it dump me in the parking lot.
I took a deep breath, steeled myself and approached the sign. I prayed I’d find it back to normal.
Nope. There was Ronald, cutting himself, gutting himself, eating himself. I felt something rigid in my jacket pocket and pulled out a rusty utility razor I didn’t remember putting in there. I dropped it like it was a rattlesnake, then picked it up with two fingers and threw it in a trash can.
I stared down the poster again.
I was hungry.
The inside of the restaurant was closed but they did have a twenty-four-hour drive-through. I walked up to it and, shivering in the chill of the autumn air, ordered two bratwurst.
I sat on the curb across the parking lot and, looking right at the sign the whole time, ate them both.
ARNIE ROLLED TO a stop in the weed-and-dirt field that would have been the mall parking lot had they ever gotten around to paving it.
“So,” Arnie said. “Christian mints, crosses, Bibles. This whole long story is just an elaborate setup to get me to subscribe to Guideposts, isn’t it? You’re gonna leave me with pamphlets with pictures of Jesus, then go start telling this whole story to the next sinner? Got to be less roundabout ways, Wong.”
“No. That stuff, the crosses and all that, either it works because we think it works, or because the bad guys think it works. Or maybe there’s some power everybody can tap into if they just know how.”
“It’s Scientology, isn’t it?”
I said, “We never saw Krissy or Wexler again. Not even on TV. They moved out of town as soon as he got out of the hospital. Together. So, yeah, he was porking her.”
He squinted at the sprawling skeleton of the mall and said, “This is the place?”
“You think a town could have two places like this?”
I ran my hands through my hair and stared at the darkened sockets on the decomposing mall where windows should have been. I heard the faint sound of a plastic tarp snapping in the breeze somewhere. “You scared, Arnie?”
“Should I be? Is this place haunted?”
“Nothin’ so simple as that. I wish it were. You say it’s haunted and you picture the ghost of some old lady wandering around aimlessly. The things that come and go around here, I don’t know that they were ever human. Or maybe they just don’t remember it. Try to imagine a Hitler or a Vlad the Impaler or even the nasty old man at the dump who steals people’s cats and buries them alive. Now imagine those guys but strip them of all their limitations. No bodies, so they never die or run down or get tired. Give them all the time in the world. Imagine that malice, that stupid black mass of hate drifting through eternity, just burning on and on and on like an oil well fire.”
Arnie waited for me to go on. I didn’t.
I was realizing all of a sudden how hard it was going to be to tell this next part. I thought it would feel good to unload the whole tale on somebody. But this next bit, this felt more like a confession.
I got out of the car and walked toward a concrete ramp, a would-be loading dock for a stillborn mall department store. I heard Arnie’s door click and thunk behind me and knew he was following.
I said, “There was a girl here in town. She disappeared last year. It wasn’t a big story, but you can look it up.”
“Let me guess. You were the last person to talk to her.”
I didn’t answer. I climbed up the loading ramp and reached a doorway, greeted by the familiar smell of mildew and urine.
I tore aside a strip of yellow warning tape and stepped into the cool darkness within.
“Now, this is going to sound crazy . . .”
The Missing Girl
IN THE SUMMER of the year after the Wexler thing, I realized someone was watching me through my television.
I could sense it, the way you sense someone staring at your back. A presence behind the screen, a pair of watching eyes.
I ignored it as long as I could, telling myself no one would want to secretly watch a single twenty-three-year-old on his couch eating Taco Bell bean burritos day after day (eighty cents apiece, two and a Coke for three bucks). But I knew better, of course. There were, apparently, parties who had a very good reason to keep eyes on me at this point, aside from my perfectly-sculpted Statue-of-David buttocks.
One night, with the television on some History Channel special about history’s Top Ten Deadliest Warships or some shit, I turned away from the TV and toward the mirror on the far wall. I went to pull a brush through my knotted hair and froze.
I had glimpsed the TV, playing in the reflection over my shoulder.
It was an oddly shaped face, with features that were human but off. A Michael Jackson face, a face like a mask. Wide, too-large eyes, a nose not quite centered. Looking right at my back from the TV, plain as day.
I spun on the television, the hairbrush flying from my hand, a terrorized breath sucking through my teeth.
Back to normal now, the Bismarck getting sunk in a plume of smoke.
Again, I suppose most people would have feared a mental illness at that point. By now, though, mental illness would just mean some tests and a prescription. Big deal. No, my fear was of somebody actually watching me through my fucking television.
I told John about it and he came right over, as a best friend would. We cursed at the television for half an hour, then he dropped his pants and pressed his balls against the screen. Like he said, there was no need to change our routine. He suggested I get some rest, that I was stressed because of Jennifer, who had moved in and then moved back out again twice in the last six months. Then we drank and played PlayStation hockey until the sun came up.
That became my routine for weeks after, sleeping too little and drinking too much and playing too much hockey. Things started to spin out of control. Soon we were playing without the goalies, skating six on six and scoring games 74 to 68. Finally, when we started both playing on the same side (Red Wings) against an inept team controlled by the computer AI and winning the games 126 to zero, I knew I had hit rock bottom.
I also knew I was still being watched. I knew this was a bad sign, that things were moving again, that I had to get my head on straight.
I threw out the bottles and shaved my face and even considered cleaning the house. I started ironing my shirts again. Somebody mailed me a little bottle of what they claimed was holy water and I kept it on my nightstand. I hung a garage-sale crucifix from my front door.
Then, just after Christmas, things got weird again.
THE END BEGAN when I came home from work on a frigid Friday night. I was plowing my truck through the worst winter storm the area had seen in years, the world looking like the aftermath of God’s sno-cone machine explosion.
I pushed in through the front door, snow melting off my leather coat. A prickly feverish sweat was breaking out all over me as my skin adjusted to the fifty-degree temperature difference between my living room and the night air outside. The wind shifted, the whole house creaked, there was a tinkling of ice chips flicking off the windows.
I had just left a nightmarish sixteen-hour, soul-numbing double shift at Wally’s Video Rental Orifice. The night manager had claimed she couldn’t get out in the storm and asked if I could please work for her, saying that she owed me big-time, that I was such a sweetheart and that if I ever needed anything, anything at all, just let her know. I don’t think she meant that. But I put my head down and plowed through a one-thousand-minute, dead-quiet, customer-free battle against exhaustion and my urge to beat my coworkers to death. Now I just wanted to dry off and curl up in—
I saw something out of the corner of my eye that stopped me in midthought. I leaned back to see through the open door of my bedroom.
The drawer on my nightstand was open.
The drawer where I keep my gun.
My butt cheeks clenched so tightly that not even light could have escaped. I listened for burglar sounds. Dead quiet. I took a soft step forward, wondering if I could fake kung fu if I had to. I once saw Arnold Schwarzenegger kill a man in a movie by grabbing his head and twisting it until the neck broke. Was that difficult? Could a man do it without a lot of practice?
I keep the gun in a hollowed-out copy of the Koran that John got me for Christmas. And there the big book was, tossed on the bed, open and gunless. Nothing else disturbed. They actually checked my Koran to see if there was a gun inside. I knew I was dealing with a sick son of a bitch.
I stepped carefully and quietly through the bedroom doorway, glancing this way and that. Nobody here. I checked under the bed, the sheets still smelling faintly of girl even now, months after I’d spent my last naked night on them with Jen. Or maybe it was my imagination.