I reached the little building. John didn’t follow, but apparently already knew what I would find. I threw aside the tarp wrapped around the corpse’s feet and began tearing at frozen laces on a pair of black leather hiking boots, just like mine. Even a scuff along the toe, like mine. The body snatchers were insane about their detail. They had to be.
I said, “I came home and I found this thing in my yard, this thing that looked just like me, and I ran in and got the gun and I popped him. He probably would’ve tried to kill me if—”
I stopped. I had pulled off the shoe and peeled off the frozen sock, but saw absolutely no mark on the dead foot. I chuckled, out loud for some reason. I dropped the foot and grabbed for the other one, started to pull apart the laces, lost the grip in my numbing fingers and threw the foot aside, realizing that I was fooling myself.
I stood there, laughing softly, steam puffing into the darkness. Then finally did what I should have done first. I went and sat on the step Amy had vacated. As I passed, John pulled Amy back behind him, backing off from me. Giving me lots of space. I started to take off my right shoe, thought, then went for the left instead. I yanked off the boot and the sock and looked at my big toe. Then I started laughing, laughing so hard I could barely breathe.
John looked at me with no expression because he already knew, looked like he had known for some time. Amy hung back, behind him, looking nervously between us. I brought up the foot and rubbed at the pi symbol on my toe, as if I could make it come off. I knew, of course, that it never, ever would.
“AND, WELL, THAT’S my story,” I said. “I’m sorry that it’s so, you know. Retarded.”
There is no word in the English language for the feeling someone gets when they suddenly realize they’re standing next to an unholy monster impersonating a human. Monstralization, maybe? I suppose it doesn’t matter because the reporter I was talking to wasn’t experiencing that emotion right now.
Arnie Blondestone of American Lifestyle magazine (or was it American Living? It was too bland to remember) had neither a tape recorder nor a notebook visible. Arnie and I had been walking as we talked, me relaying my story in the moldy halls of the defunct Undisclosed Shopping Centre. I stopped in front of a narrow, closed maintenance door and faced him. I said, “There it is. The door. The door.”
He glanced at it and said dramatically, “The door to another world!”
“Well, uh, it was. Through there and then in the little room behind it. But it wasn’t a real door, like I said. It was a ghost door.” I was going to add that John had named the other world “Shit Narnia” but I decided not to lower Arnie’s opinion of us any more than I already had.
“Well,” Arnie said, rubbing his hands together excitedly. “Let’s go.”
“Have you been listening? Even if we could, you really think they’d let us escape again? And I’m not even sure that world is habitable now anyway.”
“Come on, let’s give it a shot. Just let me poke my head through. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I completely believe your story. I just wanna confirm that one detail. The one about the ghost door that leads to the world of the bug herders.”
I suspected he might be patronizing me. I shook my head and said, “We can’t. Even if we wanted to. The door is gone. The other door, I mean. We’ve been back here several times but the wall where the ghost door was is just a wall now. But I know you’re not asking because you think it’s there. You’re asking because you think I’m nuts.”
That’s not true, though. If he thought I was dangerous, would he really have let himself get stuck in this abandoned place with me? I could have a cache of guns in here for all he knows. And if he thinks I’m bullshitting him, couldn’t he have easily excused himself by now? So what was it? Morbid curiosity? What’s your game, Arnie?
Arnie reached out and turned the rusting silver knob on the maintenance door. It swung open with a labored creak. He glanced inside the room and then back at me. He gestured at the door as if to say, “See?”
I said, “What?”
“This is the door you said got blown off its hinges when that thing, the monster came through it?”
Hmmm. That was an interesting point. I walked up to the maintenance door and ran my hand over it.
“They must have fixed it, I guess. But look at the opposite wall. You can kind of see marks in the plaster where the door bounced off it. See those scuff marks at the top there?”
Arnie shrugged, unimpressed. I tried to imagine this article in Life in the USA magazine, complete with a big full-color photo of the wall with the caption, “These are the actual scuff marks that prove an unholy demon-engineered beast burst through a nearby door in order to prevent David Wong from passing through an invisible portal to a gargantuan secret complex with a path to an alternate reality inhabited by a race of half human beastmasters.” I mean, I would read that article but I would probably be the only one.
But why was he still here? Hell, why had he come in the first place? No matter what he said, I still got this vibe from him that he wanted to believe me and that I was letting him down. He had been listening patiently to my story for six hours straight. I wouldn’t have done that if the roles were reversed. I would have politely said, “Well, I think I got all I need!” and then sprinted the other direction, laughing maniacally.
But Arnie looked like he had come here expecting answers and would now leave empty-handed. I had seen that look before, on the faces of tourists visiting the Texas Book Depository in Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald took the shots at JFK. I took that tour and met some conspiracy buffs, all of us standing at the gunman’s window and looking down to the spot where the motorcade passed. It’s right there below the window, an easy shot at a slow-moving car. No mystery, just a kid and a rifle and a tragedy. They came looking for dark and terrible revelations and instead found out something even more dark and terrible: that their lives were trite and boring.
I had a thought and said to Arnie, “The cop, John’s uncle Drake. He really did disappear, you can look that up, along with everything else. And that’s two cops who’ve gone missing and in both cases I was the last to talk to them before they did. They’ve questioned me and I have a lawyer and everything.”
“And you told the cops he was sucked into another dimension, killed and replaced by a monster?”
“Basically, only without the words ‘another dimension’ or ‘replaced’ or ‘monster.’ We told them he pulled us over and acted all crazy. His partner, the black guy? The one who was piling snow on his crotch? He went back to work that next day, like nothing happened. That’s the one Amy shot, you know.”
“Can I talk to him? Because he’s also secretly a monster, right?”
“I dunno. His name is Murphy I think. I bet he doesn’t remember that day, though.”
Arnie eyed me carefully. He couldn’t ask me the big question, couldn’t point out the elephant in the room. How do I know you haven’t killed all these people, Mr. Wong? The cops, Fred, Big Jim? How do I know I’m not talking to a bona fide serial killer right now?
Instead he said, “Look at this from my point of view, Wong—”
“No, stop. Stop that reporter bullshit, that act where you change your personality according to what you think’ll get the most information. Acting like the skeptic one second and my best friend the next and my interrogator after that, whatever it takes to coax the ‘real’ story outta me. I’ve been honest with you, Arnie.” Mostly. “Now be honest with me. Can you do that? Do you have a real personality in there or is everything an interview technique with you?”
He threw out his arms to his sides, his “what the hell do you want from me” gesture, but said nothing.
“I want to know what you’re doing here, Arnie. I mean, you picked this story, right? You probably got people feedin’ you ideas all day and you get to decide which one gets written up, right? But you drove down to the ass middle of nowhere from, uh—”
“—from Chicago and used up a whole day out of your schedule to hear this. And you came prepared, notes and shit, you read all the Web sites about us. So you got another day of preparation in this thing on top of that. Tell me, Arnie, what did you think you were gonna find?”
He shrugged again. Hesitant. “I don’t know.”
I had another thought and said, “You’re down here on your own time, aren’t you?”
He didn’t answer, but his expression answered for him.
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and felt the little metal canister. Cold. I let out a long breath. I nodded toward the floor, which had never been tiled. Just bare, unfinished plywood, graying with age.
“You see that part of the floor over there, Arnie, the section of plywood next to the wall? See how it’s all scratched around the edges, like it’s been pried up?”
He didn’t answer, but he was looking at it.
“Help me pull it up. You gotta see this.”
Doubt crept into Arnie’s face. Maybe a little fear. Maybe afraid of what was under there, maybe just not wanting to mess up his suit.
I got down on my knees and started without him. The board had warped and I knew it would come right up. John and I had never replaced the nails when we pulled it up months ago because by that point in the project we had both been pretty drunk. I pulled up the sheet of plywood, probably three by five feet in size, and leaned it against the wall. Under it there was a framework of metal rails holding up the floor. And under that, a body. More of a skeleton by now, to be accurate.
I stepped back from the square hole in the floor and gestured for Arnie to see for himself. He gave me a cautious look, stepped forward, and froze in place. A look of—
—cold recognition hit his face. He didn’t know exactly who or what I was, couldn’t know, but he did know at that moment that I had killed.