I glanced out of the window, saw the snow was coming down again.
Facing her, I said, “You deserved some kind of normal life, Amy. I can picture you, in college, a family back home. Maybe you’re working part-time at a music store. Geeky guys coming in and flirting with you at the counter. And I could come in and make some kind of awkward conversation with you and you could keep making excuses not to go out with me and I would just keep coming back and back and then you would get a restraining order against me, and my dad would get it overturned. Finally you would agree and we could go to a picnic or bowling or whatever normal people do when they’re together. What do normal people do when they’re together?”
“I have no idea.”
It’s funny, pretending that it’s normal to have a conversation with somebody standing three inches away.
She leaned in and—
IT LOOKED LIKE the world outside my window had lost its signal and gone to static. Snowing like hell, wind whipping it around. I leaned against my window, feeling the cold glass against my forehead, breaths fogging up a circular patch under my nose. There was a time when I would have found the idea of certain death a little comforting, like being on the last day of a job I hated. A weight lifted. Now, feeling the cold glass on my face and wet hair cooling my scalp and my mouth tasting vaguely like secondhand Altoids and knowing I would never see snow again, I felt a little like crying. But just a little.
I saw the grille of a car emerge like a ghost, headlights faint in the whiteout. The big car swung into my driveway, John’s Caddie. Through the window I watched as John ducked out, wearing an Army- issue fatigue jacket. He circled around to his trunk, popped it and pulled out a canvas backpack. He slung it over his shoulder and then pulled out a large tool that was unmistakably a—
“Is that a medieval battle- ax?” Amy asked from behind me, rubbing a towel through her hair.
“With John, we’ll be fortunate if it turns out to be nothing stupider than that.”
The ax was a leftover from high school, when we used to be big into Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, um, bear hunting. John burst in the door at that moment, dusted with snow, shouting, “We are gonna fuck that place up.”
He tossed down his load with a force that shook the floor, then bent over and hefted the ax that I believe was one of several props he stole from that medieval-themed restaurant he worked at for a while. He paused to let his eyes flick to mine and Amy’s wet hair and presumably asked himself if our showers had overlapped in any way. He was too polite to ask.
Then he turned and stepped past me into the hallway. He studied the wall, then raised the ax and swung it into the wall with a THOCK that sent plaster dust flying.
He swung three more times, then thrust his hand into the hole he had created and pulled out a small object that fit in the palm of his hand. He glanced at it, wiped the dust on his shirt, then tossed it to me. I caught the small canister. Silver, the size of a pill bottle.
Amy saw it and asked, “What’s that?”
“You’ve never seen it before?”
“Why would I?”
“Big Jim had it at one time. We don’t know where he got it though.”
I quickly relayed to her the story of the weather guy and the mall and how we came across the container.
“So,” she said. “What’s in it?”
“VERY SIMPLY,” I said to Amy, “the reason we can see things that you can’t is right there in that bottle. We don’t know where it came from or what exactly it does. But in those first hours after you take it, your brain is tuned in like nothing you can imagine. Eyes like the Hubble telescope, sensing light that’s not even on the spectrum. You might be able to read minds, make time stop, cook pasta that’s exactly right every time. And you can see the shadowy things that share this world, the ones who are always present and always hidden. It’d be like if a doctor could walk around with microscopes strapped to his eyes all of the time, so he could just look and see the sickness crawling around inside us.”
Amy pointed out, “Well, he’d still have to be able to see inside your blood vessels and lungs and all that. A microscope wouldn’t—”
“These microscopes also have some kind of X-ray vision attachment.”
She reached out and picked up the canister.
“Ugh. It’s cold.”
“The container is always cold,” I said. “It refrigerates the contents twenty- four hours a day. And we don’t know how. No batteries, no energy source. And it’s been working for years. The sauce, it has to be kept cool or it becomes, uh, unstable.”
Unstable, in the way that a swarm of killer bees is “unstable.”
“And you’re going to take it again?”
“I don’t want to. But I think we have to. It’ll level the playing field, get us on the same frequency as the bad guys. It’s the reason we’re alive.”
Oh, and everybody else who has ever tried it has wound up dead. The irony.
I said, “When I ran across this bottle, it was empty, just like mine.”
I opened the bottle and shook out the contents. Two capsules, black as licorice.
“I bet you’re wondering where these two came from. We’re always wondering the same thing. The stuff seems to show up when it wants to.”
She said, “You’re not going to let me take any, are you?”
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But you’re not supposed to take it. If you were, there would be three capsules in here.”
John said, “We better swallow these before they attack us.”
We did. We waited.
“Sooooo . . .” Amy asked, “how do you know when it’s working?”
I said, “You just, uh, start noticing things. It’s hard to explain. Like bits of radio signal coming in through the static.”
With that, a thought passed through my head, a flash like a shooting star. Pro wrestling was real. But not real in the sense that we perceive reality. It was more real than reality. Then, I worked out pi to four thousand decimal places and realized that if anyone ever drew a truly perfect circle it would actually look like a straight line to our eyes. I looked at the silver pill canister and realized it was more than four thousand years old. Or less than four seconds.
I said to John, “You know that if you walked around the world, your hat would travel thirty- one feet farther than your shoes?”
John said, “I dunno, Dave, but before we make a bomb I have to shave half the dog.”
I nodded. He got up, called to Molly and herded her into my bathroom. I wondered when the soy sauce would take effect.
To kill some time, I got up and hunted around the closet in my laundry room until I found my squirt gun. This was one of those huge modern guns, green and with a logo that said BIG GUSHER on the side. It had a separate two- gallon tank with hooks for a belt. The commercials bragged it could spray a soaking, quarter-inch- wide stream of water for fifty feet and that was pretty much true. The gun was sticky from when John filled it with beer last summer.
I hunted around until I found a roll of duct tape and an extended disposable lighter, the kind people light grills with. I gathered three bottles of flammable chemicals that I would mix to form the fuel. I took my armload of items and dumped them on the table.
Amy said, “So, you’re making a flamethrower?”
“Amy, we gotta be prepared. We don’t know what we’ll find in that place, but for all we know it could be the Devil himself.”
“David, what possible good is that thing gonna do?”
“Oh, no, you didn’t hear me. I said it’s a flamethrower.” Girls.
“But if something is from Hell why would you use a—”
Amy stopped, apparently deciding against pursuing that question and instead asked, “What am I taking? When we go? Is there a weapon or something for me?”
“Have you forgotten the woodchuck already?”
I went to work on the squirt gun. The sound of rustling and growling emerged from the bathroom. Under that I could detect the low hum of my beard trimmer.
Amy put her hand on mine, her other hand balled up in a fist on the table.
“There was a sheep,” she said. “In Scotland, I think. And this sheep escaped from the ranch. And you know they shear sheep for their wool. Well, this thing stayed gone for seven years. Finally they found it, in a cave. And there was nobody to shear the sheep, so when they found it, its wool was gigantic. It was, like, a walking afro. And it wound up back on the ranch, just another sheep, but for the rest of its life it knew that for a while, it was free. It had that and nobody could take it away. Do you understand? I’m like you; I want to face this thing. Whatever it is. We’re like that sheep, taking our shot. If for no other reason than just to say we did.”
“I do understand. Trust me, I do. And it takes a special kind of person to make up something so utterly bullshitty. You know their wool doesn’t just keep growing like that.”
“That’s not even the point, David.”
I went to take her other hand, saw my hand disappear into hers and realized that it was because she didn’t have another hand. But there it was, thin fingers wrapped in a tight ball.
She looked down, curious, not sure what I was staring at. I said, “I think the sauce is working. Go put on the Scooby glasses. I want to try something.”
She got up, found them on the counter, then sat down and I gestured to look at the spot where her hand shouldn’t be.
“Now this time, really concentrate. I don’t know if—”
No point in finishing the sentence. Her jaw hung open.
“Oh! I can see it! How is that possible?”
She tried it with and without the glasses, saw the hand appear and disappear. “Look! My fingernails! I had let them get long and I was meaning to cut them before I went in for the surgery. No wonder it hurts . . .”
Then she lifted the clenched fist off the table and, very slowly, uncurled the fingers. She laid the hand flat on the table.