I grabbed around for the slug thing and for several terrible seconds I felt its teeth brushing against my skin, jaws working, struggling to grab on. I wrestled it free and suddenly I had it tight in my hands, slimy and writhing, slipping under my fingers. It had a little circle of tiny teeth, each curled and needle-sharp, like fishhooks. There was a thin, straw-like appendage emerging from the center, about as long as my finger and whipping around, flecking little droplets of blood.
I took one hand off it and opened the driver’s-side door. I flung the flopping thing out into the snowy middle of the street.
I spun around in my seat and saw Mr. North pawing around the floorboard, the gun nowhere to be seen. I threw a wild punch at his face. North flung himself back in an effort to dodge it and gave me a shot at the gun, laying half under the seat below me.
I threw my torso back there, my feet kicking around at the windshield. In a scramble of elbows and hands I grabbed the pistol and twisted my body around. I jammed the barrel under his chin.
We sat like that for a long moment, both of us breathing puffs of steam as the icy wind poured in the open door. I thought I could hear a soft thumping sound, our slug friend trying to deal with life in a world of ice.
“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay, okay. This thing I’ve got pointed at you, you know what it does?”
He nodded, said, “I believe I have an idea, yes.”
“And have you ever heard the old human saying, ‘I want to shoot you so bad, my dick’s hard’?”
“I have not. But I believe the context makes its meaning clear.”
“Shut up. Don’t move.”
I crawled back into the front seat, keeping the sights on him until I dropped my legs out of the driver’s-side door and stood up into the wind. I looked around the street for the squirming monster. It had crawled all the way to the sidewalk.
I crunched over toward the creature, lifted a boot and stomped on it. I grunted random curses under my breath as I pounded the thing, again and again, hammering with my boot heel. The slug exploded in a spray of brown and red. The red blood, I assumed with disgust, was mine. I kept stomping, little flecks of ice spraying with each impact, until the monster was a wet, twisted stain.
I kicked the shredded remains into a sewer grate nearby, then stomped back toward the truck. Sweat freezing on my face, my nose running freely. My teeth were clenched, my hand squeezed on the gun so tight I could feel the pulse in my palm. From a few feet away I could see that the back door of the truck was open now and when I got there I was not surprised to see that North was gone. I slammed his door. I got in. I drove home.
I SAW JUST one other vehicle while I was out, a snowplow. I passed a cop in a convenience store parking lot, messing with the chains on his tires. He shot me a look as I passed, like I was insane for even leaving the driveway in this mess. I had to pull over once and go over my windshield with my ice scraper, the wipers unable to keep up with the storm.
I pulled alongside the road by my house and left the engine running. I crossed the yard, the network of footprints now just soft craters under new snow and ice. I clasped the toolshed key in my left hand.
You have an alibi. You were at work, all day. Alllllll day. Right?
Sure. Yeah, that’s right.
But who knows when she actually went missing. It could have taken days for anyone to notice. Even if it was last night . . .
I was in bed last night. Eleven P.M.
Were you? Can you account for every minute you think you were asleep? There’s one period when you distinctly remember being a pirate, raiding a cruise ship full of naked women. Could you have been up and prowling and imprisoning a girl in your toolshed?
No. No way.
Maybe you had her tied up out there all day and you came home and decided you finally had to get rid of your plaything? Or put it out of its misery? So you came in and got your gun and—
I suddenly pictured the answering machine, on the little table by my front door. John had called, the red light blinking, slowly.
The new-message light blinks fast, like a strobe. The machine to night was signaling a saved message. One already played.
No. I’d remember.
Would I? I thought of last summer, a month after Lopez and I broke up; she showed up at a bar where John’s band was playing. I had drunk, oh, probably seven hundred beers. I wound up back at her place, a rented house she shared with some other girl. The night was a lost blur. I remember sweat in my eyes, my own breath blowing back to me off her neck, damp sheets. And a fly. This fly that kept buzzing and landing on my back and my neck, tickling me, waking me up again and again through the night. The rest is lost. Days later it gets back to me, through one of Jennifer’s friends, that I had gone on a drunken, tear-filled rant about how Hell was waiting for me and there was nothing I could do to avoid it. I said it was bullshit, that Jen had made it up to make me look stupid. But had she? How would I know? Some memories bury themselves so, so deep . . .
And just like that, flashes of memory came pulsing in, like forgotten fragments of a dream.
You do remember. You remember rushing into the house and digging out the big book from the nightstand. You yanked the gun free and plunged out into the cold—
With the key clasped in my hand, I crossed the yard, continued around the house. The trail of prints that led back there were gone now, the space between the houses a wind tunnel that seemed to burn my ears right off my head. The Andersons lived next door; they were in Florida. The next house over was vacant, a Realtor’s FOR SALE sign buried under snow in the front yard. A single gunshot, carried by the wind? Who would call the cops? You wake up and you’re not even sure you heard it.
In the backyard now, dimly lit by a dusk-to-dawn light off my back door. Just enough light to see the pool of pink slush right in the middle of the snow. A metal wire tightened around my gut.
Did you actually feel sorry for yourself a few minutes ago, having to live your life in an institution or jail? That’s an actual girl’s actual blood, Dave. She was warm in her home and ready to curl up in bed and next she was wrestled away or knocked cold. What do you remember? You remember the flare of light and the gun jumping in your hand, then digging around the snow for the brass casing and not finding it, night-blinded from the muzzle flash, ears ringing with the sound. And just like that night with Jennifer, you knew it was the last thing you wanted to do but still you did it and did it and did it. You never stop, Dave.
I reached the door and tried to wedge the key into the frozen padlock, my fingers shaking. I dropped the key once, twice, then wrapped the frozen lock in my palm to warm it. Finally I got the key in and twisted it and popped the lock free.
A burst of fire in the darkness, the sharp crack of a gunshot, night blindness, panic, frozen breaths, blue canvas—
I pulled open the door, scraping it along the frozen ground. The piano wire around my gut tightened again and I thought I would have been sick, had I eaten anything.
I have this tarp, a blue one, one I always used to keep my firewood dry before I ran out of firewood. Right now it was in a loose roll along the gravel floor of my toolshed, above another frosted stain of cranberry-colored slush. There was something wrapped in the canvas, something the size of a body, something I knew was a body, rolled up like—
A murder burrito!
—a gutted deer in the bed of a pickup. I could have confused this for a slain young deer, in fact, had there not been three pale fingers extending just over the edge of the canvas.
I turned away, stepped outside, put my hands on my knees.
Slow, deep breaths. I stood upright, let the steam rise past my eyes, my soul making a run for it. Knees felt like Jell-O. I lay back against the door frame of the shed, then felt it sliding against my back. My ass was cold suddenly. Snow soaking in. I was surprised to see I was sitting, legs splayed out in front of me, no strength to stand.
You guys know my sister, who’s back home at this moment. In that big, old house.
If one of you makes it out of this instead of me, I want you to look in on her, make sure she’s taken care of.
She ain’t never been on her own.
I want you to promise me.
In the end, the people riding in the back of that beer truck couldn’t protect her. They couldn’t protect her from me.
There was no question in my mind I had done it. I didn’t want to do it, to be sure, but I had done it just the same. And the thought, the gargantuan thought that swallowed me the way the impossible idea of eternity will swallow me upon arrival in Hell, was that nothing would ever, ever, ever be right again.
Christ. The weight of it.
No shit, asshole. That’s why you have to act. She’s dead, you’re not. Think. Do you know what they do to guys like you in jail? The river isn’t frozen over yet, just take the body and dump it, cut off the head and the hands and dump it. This isn’t your fault—
No. I wouldn’t do that. I had a vision of friends and family—and she had to have family, somewhere—living the rest of their lives not knowing what happened to Amy Sullivan. No, they deserved to know. They deserved to know I did it and to see me strapped to a table with a needle in my arm.
I made myself breathe. One step at a time, that was the only way to handle things after they spun out of control. Step one: breathe. Step two: stand up. Go inside the shed, take a look, make sure it’s her—
Oh, hey, that’s right. You might have a whole collection of corpses stacked around here—
—then go to Amy’s place and tell John. Just tell him, no bullshit. Then call Drake and show him the body. Tell him the truth, tell him I blanked out and there she was. Let’s face it, if I’m this dangerous it’s better that I be locked up. For everyone’s safety.
I climbed to my feet, put my hand on the door—
Okay, fine, just go in and unwrap her and face this thing, just face what you did
——and closed it. I snapped the padlock shut, then trudged inside the house.
By the way . . .
LOOKING BACK, IF I had gone in and seen what was in the toolshed, I would have put a bullet in my own skull one minute later.