I said, “I have to go.”
“I just have to run home. I’ll be back.”
“Yeah, you probably gotta check on the brownies. Can you get me some rubber gloves while you’re at it?”
He opened the library door again and said, “Where’d you go, asshole?” then once more closed himself inside the room.
DRIVING AGAIN. DEFROST heat blowing on the windshield, ice crystals melting on contact with the glass, swept aside by the wiper blade a second later. Wheels floating under me, no traction in the ice. The roads all to myself.
If there’s a body in your toolshed, say, of a skinny, retarded redheaded girl, just come clean. To John first. Tell him exactly what happened. No need to plan beyond that. Gotta see what’s there first. Gotta see . . .
I turned on the radio, looking for something to blast the thoughts out of my head, hoping the moist nighttime air would blow in a rare non-country station. I ground through static and static and static, then recoiled at the shrill, choking sound of a man apparently squealing through a crushed larynx. After a moment I realized it was simply Fred Durst and the group Limp Bizkit—Shitload’s favorite band. They’re the ones who invented the musical technique of feeding a list of generic rap phrases to a goat, then reading its turds into a microphone over heavy metal guitar.
This was the song “Rollin’,” judging by the fact that the chorus was Fred saying that word several dozen times. Perfect. Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ . . .
Just tell the truth, that’s all I had to do. Just tell the truth. If I did it, I did it. I blanked and found a dead girl. No cover-up, no hiding the body or any of that. Just face the consequences.
Sure. Your “dad” will fly up and he’ll tell you not to talk to anybody and he’ll make noise about your record of mental illness and use lots of big words. You’ll get off, because he’s damned good at getting people off, and instead of jail you’ll get a stay in an institution smelling of ammonia and spoiled food, surrounded by people mumbling to themselves and smearing feces on the walls. It will work. It worked for the Hitchcock thing. No, don’t think about that. Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ . . .
From the darkness behind me, a very cold and very bony hand reached up and closed around my mouth.
The hand squeezed, pulling my head back.
I expected a blade on my throat.
Instead, something long and cold and wet and twitching slid across my neck and down my shirt.
I cranked the wheel and clawed at the hand. The truck skidded in the snow, jumped a curb and smacked a newspaper machine with a crash of ruined metal and glass. With a jolt, the front tires blasted through a snowdrift and landed back on the street, wheels spinning, grabbing, then spinning again.
The thing on my neck snaked across my collarbone and slid down my shirt, something with the texture of a slug or a leech but long, its tail snaking up from my chest around my collarbone. A cool, twitching, itching weight on my skin.
I screamed. I admit it. I blew through an intersection blinking yellow lights, I stomped around with my feet until I found the brake and went into a powerslide, the rear of the truck trading places with the front.
“No, no. Keep driving,” said a soft voice in my ear. “She will not bite if you keep driving.”
Fuck that. Fuck that idea like the fucking captain of the Thai Fuck Team fucking at the fucking Tour de Fuck. I stomped the brake and cranked the wheel. We skidded to a stop and—
I screamed again. A terrible, pinching pain pierced my breastbone. It was unreal, like my bones were sprouting razor blades. I screamed again and grabbed at the monster on my chest. A hand reached around and snatched my wrist with a quick, clean move.
“Be calm,” said the voice. “Drive. Just drive. She will leave you alone. If you drive.”
I didn’t even hear this, not really. I got my other hand into my pocket and clawed free the pistol. A pain ripped through my chest again, unimaginable, like being torn in half. It crippled me. All of my limbs stopped in protest.
The hand reached up from the backseat and very slowly took the Smith. Once more he said, “Drive. Just drive.”
The pain relented. Huge gasps of breath tore in and out of my lungs. I squeezed my eyes shut, opened them again, and eased my foot onto the accelerator. I tried to look down at the thing that had me, its tail sticking out of the neck of my shirt. It had inch-long stalks all along its back, each ending in what looked like a small black eye. Several of the stalks tickled my chin as it wormed its way around, the end of the creature resting over my shoulder, squirming gently back and forth on the leather of my jacket. I heard the figure behind me shift on the upholstery, as if it was sitting back in the seat. I drove into the night, desperately trying to remember where I was going. I felt a drop of some kind of liquid crawl down my belly.
I tried to say something cool, wound up stammering something like, “WANNA YOU WANNA WEENIE ME?” The end kind of trailed off in a shrill, choking warble.
“Just be calm. You’re doing fine. Now tell me what you were doing before I made myself known.”
“Who—who the fuck are you?”
“My name is Robert North.”
“Congratulations. Now who are you and what’s this fucking thing you—”
“Please answer my question. Where were you going in such a hurry?”
“Home. Why? What’s it to you? What’s happening to night?”
I reached up and adjusted the rearview mirror to see in the backseat. It was just a man, thin, in his thirties. Brown hair, buggy eyes and a beak-like nose. Looked sort of En glish, but no matching accent. He spoke robotically, with difficulty. It’s the way some deaf people talk, not able to hear their own inflection. He was wearing a white, furry woman’s hat, what looked like a blue Wal-Mart vest with a little plastic toy sheriff’s badge tacked to the breast.
He nodded toward the rear of the vehicle, where the stereo speakers were. “That man, in your, whatever you call it, your communicator. Does he need help?”
“He sounds wounded. Does he need your assistance?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Why do you not respond to my questions directly?”
“That’s just Fred Durst. On the radio. He’s not talking to us.”
“Are you certain? It sounds as if he is crying out while someone is strangling him.”
“I know. That sound is entertainment to many of us. It’s called a ‘song.’ ”
“I know songs. But—I thought they rhymed.”
I looked back again and saw the man was holding my gun by the barrel, studying it with detached curiosity. He had never held a gun before.
I said, “I’m turning off the radio so we can hear each other. Look.” I very gingerly reached out and clicked off the power button. “Okay. I’m driving home. I live there. Can you tell me who you are, and where you’re from? Or even better, who sent you?”
“I’m from right here, so far as you know it. Who sent me means very little right now. Why you are travelling home with such urgency, in these conditions, is of great importance.”
“Did I kill the girl?”
“I do not understand the question. My interest is only in you and in your desperation not to answer my question. I assure you that your own safety depends on your honesty.”
The thing on my chest began pulsing gently, making gulping twitches.
Okay, this bullshit has got to end. I’m neither brave nor reckless, but this was simply pissing me off too much.
“I’m going to reach out again,” I said, “to make an adjustment to the heat in here. Okay?”
I very slowly and nonthreateningly punched in the cigarette lighter.
“Now,” I said, “I am going home to check something. In my toolshed. The, uh, the little building behind my home where I store things. Okay?”
He stayed silent for several seconds. A quick glance in the rearview showed a very grave expression on a bony face bathed in shadow and flickers of passing streetlights. The look of a man who’s going to have to put his dog to sleep.
I glanced down at the lighter. The slug on my chest slowly curled its tail around, coming to rest along my neck and earlobe. It gave a little shiver.
North stared off into the passing night and said, “They harvest insects here, do they not? For their honey? Do the bees know they make the honey for you? Or do they work tirelessly because they think it is their own choice? Have you never noticed that, after hearing a new word for the first time in your life, you’ll hear it again within twenty-four hours? Do you ever wonder why sometimes you’ll see a single shoe lying along the road?”
A single tear rolled down his cheek. It occurred to me that the man was batshit insane.
The lighter clicked. My heart leapt with anticipation and I realized, with disgust, that the slug thing could feel the change. It twitched and fluttered as if it were feeding off the excitement.
Or the increased blood flow.
I shifted my hands, the left on the wheel, the fingers on my right resting on the knob of the lighter.
North didn’t seem to notice me plotting my escape, but said, “I am at a loss. I have been watching you for some time, but there are great gaps in my knowledge. You know, I observed a man who masturbated until he bled. Did he want to do that? And you, when you were alone you—”
I yanked the lighter free, the coils orange with heat. I slammed on the brakes and cranked the wheel with my left hand. With my right I jammed the lighter onto the lump in my shirt where I guessed the creature’s head would be with a sharp hiiiissssss.
The slug thing shrieked and thrashed wildly inside my shirt. The truck spun and tilted up on two tires for a sickening moment.
The truck fell back down on four wheels with a thud. The lighter tumbled to the floor, a streak of orange in the darkness. A small yellow flame danced around a hole in my shirt where I had singed it with the lighter.