Undaunted, John turned off on a country road not far from the house. He wasn’t the first to have this idea tonight, he figured, because there were tire tracks in the snow leading up, and John figured the last person who came this way was doing what he was doing: getting around the accident.
A few minutes in he became sure he was right because the road seemed to circle back around to the rear of the old industrial park, which contained the Rooter plant along with an abandoned beans- and- wienies cannery, a Best Buy distribution center and a closed Hanes jockstrap jockstrappery. Just across the highway from that was the abandoned Undisclosed Shopping Centre with its rows of decaying stores where the only inventory was mildew, bats and squirrel families building nests out of used rubbers.
The gravel road and fresh tire tracks that John followed took him through a narrow strip of woods alongside the Rooter property. It was while passing through the leafy darkened canopy that he saw a flickering of lights off to his left, flashing between the tree trunks.
He slowed and stopped, seeing bouncing white beams that had to be men with flashlights, maybe a half dozen or so.
Shots rang out.
The lights vanished and John sat there for a few minutes before he picked them up again, farther down in the trees. He pulled forward a little down the road, peering into the woods, saw the flashlight beams stop and then blink out one by one. Whatever the men were looking for, be it a raccoon to boil or one of the guys’ contact lenses, they had apparently found it. He peered into the trees looking for more activity, decided that the group could have been mere redneck poachers or fraternity scavenger hunters, and stepped on the gas. The big Caddie crested a hill and when John saw what was below, he slammed on the brakes. A truck was down there, a heavy truck that looked military but didn’t have a military paint job. Flat black from head to toe. This was apparently the source of the tire tracks he had been following.
A group of men carrying what had to be rifles stood around the vehicle, and John immediately reached out and punched the switch to kill his headlights. Then it occurred to him that the lights suddenly going off might have been more noticeable. So he punched them back on, thought he saw two of the men turn toward him, and then quickly turned the lights back off again. Now he felt the strobing of his headlights was almost impossible not to notice; in fact, all of the men seemed to be looking up the hill at him. The group might have either pursued him or raised their rifles to perforate his windshield had a gorilla riding a giant crab not leapt out of the woods and eaten two of them.
You heard me.
John said the thing was as tall as the truck and walked on six legs that looked horned and armored like something seen at a seafood buffet. But there was a part that had the feel of a mammal, too, fur and arms. Please remember that from John’s distance the beast would have been the size of a dime, so I won’t criticize his crab- riding monkey description even though we all know it’s retarded.
The thing crawled away—sideways—with the legs of one man still kicking from its mandibles. Cracks of rifle shots rang out and little flares of muzzle flash lit up the snow at the foot of the hill. The men raced into the woods. John waited, then threw the Caddie into reverse and backed far enough down the other side of the hill as to be out of view of the army truck, though he claims that from that vantage point he could still see the truck, so that’s probably physically impossible.
Shots rang out from the woods. An animal screech rang out from the woods. Shots rang out from the woods again. More howls and then more shots, dozens, rattling over each other. Full auto fire. Screams.
There was silence for a moment and then John says he saw a single figure sprint out of the woods and head to the truck. The man jumped into the back, pulled out two small cases the size of lunch boxes and ran into the woods again. After a moment, more shots hammered the night air. The bestial screams again. More shots. More screams. More shots. There was a low, animal moan from the woods. The gunfire fell silent. John threw the Caddie in gear and was prepared to drive past the truck before the men returned, but he was too late because here was the lone man, running back. He was carrying the small cases, which seemed lighter now. He ducked into the truck again, emerged with two new cases, and returned to the woods. Gunshots resumed, followed by the screams of the monkey- crab.
This went on for about half an hour and then finally the noises stopped. Four men wandered out of the woods and mounted up in the truck. The truck pulled away. John followed. He passed a turn that led back to the Drain Rooter plant, probably to the employee lot, but saw that it was sealed off with a chain- link gate. If this had been an action movie, John thought, he would have rammed through it. Unlike a movie prop car, however, John was depending on the Cadillac to get him to work the next morning, and a punctured radiator would cost a week’s pay.
But more importantly, the truck he was following didn’t turn off at the gated road and he was now very eager to see where it went. John hung far back, content to follow the trail of the tire tracks. They kept going through the main access road for the industrial park and across the two- lane highway that intersected the road. The truck had continued onto the white canvas that was the parking lot of the dead Undisclosed Mall. It had circled around to the back of the eastern wing, one fork in the mall’s U-shaped floor plan.
John waited what he thought was a sufficient amount of time for the men in the truck to dismount and go wherever they were going, then cautiously drove around the building so he could see the truck parked near the ramp and boarded-up entrance of what would have been a department store had the mall ever bothered to open. John staked out the spot, saw nothing. He finally grew impatient and, being totally unarmed and without a flashlight or any kind of survival instincts, tromped over to a doorless doorway and walked in like he owned the place.
The cavernous space was as cold as a meat locker. Some moonlight spilled in from a framed hole in the roof, the skylight that had the glass shattered out of it last year. Snow had sifted down through the hole, leaving a coating at the center of the floor like spilled flour. Right across the edge of it were footprints. Five or six leading to an elongated skid that John assumed was created by a guy slipping in the snow and falling on his ass. John didn’t make the same mistake, circling around the dusting of snow and following the direction of the tracks. They led to a metal MAINTENANCE door and John paused to wonder if maintenance on this place was the easiest job in the world or the hardest. He found the door locked and claims he picked it. I’ve never known John to know how to pick a lock but I don’t claim to know all of his secrets. Maybe the guys just left it unlocked.
Anyway, John says he picked it and inside found a small, dirty, windowless room that seemed to be home to a lot of spiderwebs and dark scurrying shapes, but no exits. He flicked on his lighter and confirmed it. No doors, no hatches, no tunnels. Just like Amy’s bathroom, the trail led there and stopped. John turned to leave, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a doorway. He felt like an idiot because, how do you miss it, right in the middle of the wall like that? Tall, arched at the top, ornate. Totally out of place in a room like this. Then he turned to face it and saw that it was only a blank wall again.
He turned to the side, once more saw a blurry glimpse of the big door out of the corner of his eye. There, but not there, like an optical illusion. John went over to the wall and pawed around on the surface by the warm glow of the butane flame, looking for a lever or a seam or hidden hinges or something. After several minutes, he found it only to be a solid wall. He glanced at his watch—
—and realized he had to be at the job site in less than half an hour. He left, guessing—rightly—that he would be back.
I alternately turned the Bronco’s engine on and off so we could run the heater without poisoning ourselves with carbon monoxide, as I heard could happen if a parked car was left on too long. Especially this one, which smelled like rotten eggs from time to time anyway. I had always credited it to some sort of emissions problem, and I was sure it would remain even if I gave the truck a thorough cleaning, though I had never fully investigated that scenario.
Amy’s hair smelled like strawberries. She was leaning on me, her feet on the armrest of her door, the gun pointed somewhere in the direction of the glove compartment. There was a coating of white on all of the glass now, as if a sheet had been thrown over the Bronco. For the second time that night I had the very odd, weightless feeling that we were the last two people on Earth.
I said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Why were you in Pine View? There’s barely anything wrong with you. And I have a right to know, you know, as a taxpayer.”
“The car accident. I missed school for a few months, had all kinds of problems when I came back. They had me on antidepressants and everything else. Well-butrin. I bit a teacher and wound up with the crazy kids.”
“You bit a teacher?”
She sighed and said, “Okay. One day me and Mom and Dad were driving, going shopping for school clothes. I was fourteen, about to start high school. I fell asleep in the backseat and woke up and felt like somebody was shaking me. Then I was upside down, my cheek pressed to pavement. Glass everywhere, blood every where. Dad had been thrown from the car, he died right there, two feet in front of me. His face was just—it was like a rubber mask. Just, nothing there. Mom was laying there, legs pinned under the hood, screaming. I was mostly okay but my back was twisted around and my legs were numb, my hand was caught under a door and I just laid there and told Mom to calm down, that help would be here soon. We laid there forever. And I could hear cars passing. I could hear them and it’s like, ‘why don’t they stop?’ Somebody, you’d think . . .”
She trailed off, turned to look out the side window, at nothing.
“They pulled me out and my hand was like, hamburger. Tendons and stuff curling out of it and, just gross. It was just barely on, hanging by like, a little strip holding it to my wrist. They’re putting me on a stretcher and my hand is just dangling, swinging back and forth. Mom died at the hospital. Jim wasn’t there, of course, he had stayed home so he was okay and he was freaking out, like it was his fault. They did surgery on my hand, put it back on. Then they did surgery on my back where I cracked a vertebrae. They put a little metal rod right—” she reached around and pointed to a spot between her shoulder blades. “—there. It made me a half inch taller. Isn’t that weird? I had a lot of pain, they’d put me in traction every now and then to kind of stretch me out and take pressure off it. And so the hand, it was a big problem. It worked for a few years, into high school, but then I lost feeling in these two fingers . . .”