Either way, you should probably change those sheets . . .
Nothing under the bed. I checked the other rooms in the dark little house, stepping slowly across the carpet. Somebody had called, I noticed, the little red “new message” light on my answering machine blinking in the darkness like a time bomb.
Nobody here. I wandered toward the answering machine, my gut full of snakes. Snow melted in my hair, a droplet of ice water running into my ear. I reached up to brush it back—
And sucked in a shocked breath.
I had found the pistol.
It was in my motherfucking hand.
I dropped the gun like it was made of bees. It bounced onto the sofa and I stared stupidly at it, then stared even more stupidly at my empty palm, fingers pink from the cold. What the—
Now that you ask, it’s a whole ten-foot walk from your heated truck to your front door. Why does every inch of exposed skin feel windburned? Why do you seem to have a pint of snow in your hair?
There’s that feeling again, that fluttery feeling of mental weightlessness, like the times when you wake up in the dark, on the hood of a car, a bottle in your hand, no idea what day it is, some girl shouting at you in Arabic.
I tried to collect myself. Tired. Tired like a zombie. An overworked zombie, one who got hired as a salaried assistant manager at a zombie video store, only to find out “salaried” just means he doesn’t get paid for overtime. My skull pounded, my knees were ground glass. I sat heavily on the sofa and stared vacantly at the little beads of water standing on the sleek, chrome surface of the Smith. I glanced at my watch. Right after midnight.
Okay. You got off at eleven. You came straight home. It’s a twelve-minute drive, figure maybe twenty for the weather. You came right in. So where did the other half hour go, Dave? Did you maybe take a detour and shoot your boss?
No, if I’d shot Wally’s manager Jeff Wolflake, I wouldn’t have deprived myself by repressing the memory, would I?
I picked up the gun and ejected the magazine. Still heavy with bullets. I sighed with relief. If I had indeed stopped by Jeff’s house to murder him, I would have emptied the gun. I reinserted the magazine.
This was no way to start the weekend. I punched the “play” button on the machine, listened to the message. It was John. It finished, I hit “play” again, listened closer, then hit “play” again. By the fourth time I was pretty sure that John had said, “bag full of fat.”
I decided to try once more:
“ Dave? It’s me. Amy’s missing and we got what looks like a bag full of fat here. It’s weird. And I mean ‘bad’ weird, not ‘clown’ weird. It’s almost midnight and—I guess you’re not home yet. Or maybe you’re in bed. You’re not in bed, are you? I know you haven’t been sleepin’. Are you there? Wake up, David. Wake up. Okay, so you’re not there. Call me when you get this, I don’t care how late. Oh, and when you come over, watch out for a jellyfish. See you.”
Bag full of fat. I picked up the phone and dialed John on his cell. One ring, and then—
“I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE, VINNY!”
“Oh, Dave. Sorry. I had been having a heated argument here on my phone and then I hung up in disgust. Then when the phone rang I just assumed, without checking, that it was the person I was having an argument with, so I just blindly shouted insults into the phone. How embarrassing.”
“I’m getting sick of that one, John.”
“Are you on your way over?”
“I, uh, got somethin’ going on here.”
“What’s your thing?”
“I’ve got a—”
I paused, made a decision.
“—batch of brownies in the oven. I don’t want them to burn, or else they get gummy.”
“Yeah, they’ll stick, too. Did you grease the pan?”
“Good. Anyway, Amy is missing and the scene is weird as shit. The situation has a real Lovecraft feel to it. Though, you know, if you come over it’ll be more of an Anne Rice situation. If you know what I mean.”
“Because you’re gay.”
“Who’s missing, John?”
“Amy, Dave. A-M-Y. I think my signal’s breaking up—”
“I don’t know any—”
“Amy Sullivan? Big Jim’s sister?”
That stopped me.
Memories of an entire day spent locked in the back of a truck, sick with fear and boredom. A promise made to a dead man. I hadn’t thought of that day in months.
“Oh. You mean Cucumber.”
“Do you not feel the need to learn people’s real names, Dave?”
“We called her that in school. She was in that Special Ed class, always throwing up for some reason.”
A silent pause on John’s end.
“You know, like a sea cucumber? They’re these eels that—”
“Anyway, Dave, we’re at her house now. The cops, too. How soon can you be here?”
How about June?
Even that wasn’t going to be enough time to piece this together. I pictured Big Jim on his back, a crimson stain across his neck and the floor like a scarf. The dead man had circled back into my life somehow. I glanced at the gun, trying to make it all fit and failing.
“What’d you say on my machine? Bag full of—”
“I can’t hear you, you’re breaking up. Just get here as soon as you can, we gotta go deal with this flying jellyfish thing.”
A pause on my end now.
“See you in a few—UNDER THE CABINET! NO, THE CABINET! THE—HERE, LET ME—”
Click. Doooooooooooooooo . . .
I disconnected and did what I usually do after hanging up with John: sat in dumbfounded silence and contemplated all of the poor choices in my life.
I shrugged out of my coat, pulled off my Wally’s shirt, smelled it, then hung it back in the bedroom closet.
As I pulled on a new shirt I grabbed a bottle of caffeine pills from my desk drawer. I washed down four of them with a warm, half-empty bottle of red Mountain Dew I found on the kitchen counter.
I pulled on the coat and, after a moment’s hesitation, dropped the Smith & Wesson in the pocket, the weight pulling the whole left side of the coat down on my shoulder. I felt like Bruce Willis.
Is it just me, or is the barrel slightly warm?
I pushed through my front door and plunged into the cold, but made it no farther than the doormat.
The thin blanket of white across my front lawn should have been clean, save for a single trail of prints from the driver’s side of my Bronco to the spot I was standing. Instead, there was a haphazard circle of tracks in loops around my front yard, then trailing off around the back of the house. The trail of prints emerged from the other side and eventually led to the front porch, where I was now.
I stepped off the porch and into the crunchy snow/ice shell that coated the ground. I leaned down, squinting against the storm. Boot prints, zigzag treads. I had a very dark, very lonely realization.
The prints were mine. All of them.
I glanced around in the darkness, seeing nothing but sparkling flecks of ice passing through shafts of street light. I made the silent decision to never tell anyone about this, and got in my truck.
Missing time. That’s what they call it. John’s got a missing girl, you’ve got a missing half hour. Shit.
I twisted the ignition to life, thought for a moment, then pulled the Smith from my pocket. I pressed the button on the handle and again popped out the magazine. I made a little pouch in my lap with my shirt and, with my thumb, flicked out the bullets one by one. I counted as I went, hoping—no, praying—that none were missing.
One, two, three, four . . .
The bullets were, uh, unusual. The heads were silver with a bright-green plastic tip. A guy had mailed me these, anonymously. They were lined up in rows in a heavy white cardboard box, a tag on the inside typed with bullet jargon I didn’t understand. Something about “proximity fuses” and long serial numbers. John and I test-fired them, shot a pumpkin and watched it explode into flaming bits of blackened shell.
. . . seven, eight, nine . . .
That’s what people do these days, they mail me things. Crystals. Shrunken heads. Doctored pictures of angels in clouds and of bleeding statues. Bundles of blue-lined notebook paper full of scrawled, rambly stories about Satan sending hidden messages through mass e-mail subject lines. I’ve gotten chunks of stone stolen from haunted castles in Scotland, hunks of supposedly cursed black volcanic rock from Hawaii, dried Bigfoot turds. John and I have this reputation now and everybody wants to help.
. . . thirteen, fourteen . . .
I let out a long breath.
One missing. One.
THE TWO-STORY PSYCHO-STYLE house “Big Jim” Sullivan had lived in with his mentally handicapped sister would have cost most of a million dollars had it not been run-down and located in a weedy, desolate section of town a block from a chemical-drain-cleaner factory. I guessed the sister, Amy, lived here by herself now that Big Jim was deceased under circumstances I am rarely able to adequately explain in mixed company.
I swung my headlights into the yard of the Sullivan Psycho house, between John’s 1978 Caddie (bearing the cryptic license plate, CRKHTLR) and an Undisclosed cop car that was parked along the road.
It really was a shitty, shitty neighborhood. The next house over looked empty. The neighbor down the hill on the other side was an expanse of white parking lot dense with a wormy pattern of tire treads. It led to the ass of a huge building lined with a row of roll-up garage doors. The rear trucking entrance of the Drain Rooter plant. There was a single semi backed into one of the stalls, bearing the logo of a cartoon plumber with a big red “X” through him. I wondered if the bathroom drains at the plant ever got clogged to the point that they had to call in a plumber and, if so, if anyone was able to make eye contact with the guy while he was there.