Trying to sound casual, he said, “And who is that?”
Arnie took two steps back and here it was, the big moment. The moment at which Arnie would turn on his heels and run away, or plunge fully into the dark madness of Wongworld.
Arnie really looked like he would run. I turned and sat calmly down on the floor, my back against the wall, looking up at him. If he ran, I would let him go.
He hesitated, ran a hand over his mouth. The bones below him were long rid of any muscle or skin, now a dried-up, ash-colored framework covered in crumbling clothes. I thought of the squirming masses of beetles and worms and spiders and maggots that had feasted on “my” body down there, building writhing nests where my mouth had been. I gave a shudder.
I said, “We were gonna shove it through the portal, but by the time we got here it was gone. No ghost door. So we debated for about half an hour, had a dozen beers, then finally decided to cram it under the floor and go back home.”
Arnie stood silent for a long moment, then said, “What, you didn’t worry about somebody finding it? Like the cops?”
“What crime would they charge me with? Suicide?”
Arnie actually barked a dry laugh. He turned away from the corpse under the floor, surely wishing he could rewind his life to a time before he had seen it. He walked to the opposite side of the room and sat.
He said, “This doesn’t change anything. Fine, there’s a body. But that don’t make the rest of your story true.”
I sighed and said, “Arnie, come on. I know what you’re saying but, really, what did you think you were gonna find here? Talk to me, buddy.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t—it’s a hobby of mine. That’s all. The paranormal, all that.”
He stopped talking. I waited. He said, “And the thing with the shadows, I guess, kind of caught my eye. In your story. There’s a lot of that going around now, on the Net, elsewhere, stories of the shadow people. I think Dean Koontz wrote a novel about them, but you have to ask, did his book come first or did the stories come first? But all of a sudden, everyone’s talking about them. Everyone and no one. Do you know what I mean?”
Oh, I know, Arnie. Trust me, I know.
He continued, “And I would think back to what I saw, in my basement that day. The shadow. And after that, every now and then, maybe I saw them but maybe I didn’t, you know? It’s like once you see a mouse in your kitchen you start seeing it everywhere. But there’s something else, too. At certain times, mostly when I’m really sleepy—and this is gonna sound crazy as shit but considering what you’ve said I think I might as well let it out—at those times I think I see a cat. Just glimpses, out the corner of my eye. A cat slipping around a corner or running past my chair. And I think, okay, that’s Fluffy. That’s my cat, Fluffy. But I’ve never owned a cat. And then I think I can remember that maybe I did own a cat. Or maybe I didn’t. And I swear I can remember a life with it and one without it, and then I heard your story—”
“With Todd?” I said. “You heard about the thing with Todd and thought maybe it was the same thing? That maybe the shadow people took your cat?”
He shook his head, but not in disagreement. It was a gesture of resignation. He said, “I’ll never say the phrase ‘the shadow people took my cat’ out loud or agree to it when you say it out loud. I got a life to live, you know. But yeah, in my drunker moments I think that somehow I had a cat and that the cat was stolen from me, both in the present and the past. And then I heard bits of your story and I think, here’s somebody who’s been down the same road. If nothin’ else, maybe he’s got the same psychological disorder or maybe we did the same drugs in college and maybe I can get to the bottom of it. So that’s why I’m here. The short version, anyway.”
And that’s true, Arnie. I believe you. But that isn’t the whole truth, is it? Why do you keep stopping short of the whole story?
I said, “There’s more, isn’t there?”
He looked over at the open grave in the floor and said, “You say John helped you move the body?”
“Sure. I couldn’t have done it alone. It’s hard enough hauling my own fat ass around without having to double the load.”
“So after he knew about, you know. After he knew the truth, you’re saying he stuck around?”
I shrugged. “Well—”
“Because you guys killed a cop when you found out he was one of these things. Why would it be different?”
“Well, that was only after he actually turned into the monster—”
“And what about Amy? Can I talk to her?”
“Is she still—”
I didn’t answer. Arnie sat up straight, energized to be back in reporter mode, ready to dig again. “There’s more, isn’t there? What is it? Does it have to do with the girl? With Amy? What happened to her?”
I rubbed my eyes and said . . .
IF YOU HAD asked me then, as I sat there in the snow and biting cold of my backyard, I would have said it was the worst moment of my life. And that would have been a ridiculous thing to say, since technically my “life” had only been a couple of days long at that point.
I don’t know how long I sat there looking at my bare foot and the symbol on my toe, with Amy standing a few feet away in a horrified paralysis. I saw John sit on a tree stump and pull out his cigarette-rolling kit, watched him carefully roll one before patting around his pockets for a lighter and realizing he had left it in another universe. He threw the cigarette aside with a curse. That’s when Amy began crying, like a switch had been thrown. Softly at first, her head in her hand, her fingers clawing handfuls of copper hair. She leaned against the toolshed and then she was crying hard, a wretched, coughing sound as her body convulsed with sobs. Little kid–type crying. Jerking, unrestrained and terrible, terrible, terrible.
“Let’s, uh, all go inside . . .” John began, weakly. “Amy, come on.”
She didn’t hear him, her whole body spasming with sobs, a sound like her lungs were having a fistfight. It was truly awful. I closed my eyes and would have plugged my ears, too, but not even that would block it because the very air stank from the sheer awfulness of it all.
John looked long at Amy, then at me. Finally he nodded to himself as if coming to some conclusion and said, “Okay.” He stabbed a finger at Amy.
“Amy,” he said in a voice that was strong and abrupt. “Stand up straight.” She didn’t.
“Hey. Amy.” He strode over and grabbed the shoulder of her jacket, shaking her. “Man up. The night’s work ain’t done. You ready to man up?”
She wiped her face and looked at him.
“Okay,” John said, “you still got the gold cross? The one Dave gave you?”
She nodded. I noticed a snowflake landed on the lashes of one of her eyes.
“Okay,” John said. “Take the cross and touch Monster Dave with it. If he’s evil, he’ll explode.”
I pulled on my sock and shoe and said, almost too quiet to hear, “Leave her alone, John.”
“Human Dave wouldn’t have said that!” John shouted, loud enough for my neighbors to hear. “Now sit still while she touches you with the cross.” He turned to Amy and pulled on her arm. “Come on. Man up.”
He pulled her to her feet—roughly, I thought—and she mumbled something to him so I couldn’t hear. John answered with, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” She pulled her arm from him and he said, “Amy, I’m not asking you. This needs to be done.”
She dug into her shirt for the cross necklace and wrapped the thin chain around her fist. She glanced doubtfully at John, who urged her on with a gesture.
Holding the cross between thumb and finger like a key, she took a few cautious steps toward me, her face showing caution bordering on naked fear. I heard myself say, “Amy . . .”
“SHUT UP!” John screamed. “Don’t listen to his lies, Amy, for that is a crafty one there.”
She drew closer, holding the cross at arm’s length. I looked down at the powdering of snow on my pants. I looked up suddenly, the cross an inch away from my face. This movement seemed to startle Amy and she lunged forward with the necklace. The cross jabbed me right in the eye.
“OH, SON OF A BITCH!” I threw myself to my feet, clasping my stinging eye. “You jabbed that thing right in my—”
“I KNEW IT!” screamed John, his face a picture of indignant monstralization. “AMY, BACK AWAY.”
John tore off his coat and flung it into the snow. Then he pulled his shirt over his head and stood there, bare-chested, snow landing on his naked shoulders like dandruff. I blinked my injured eye and was relieved to see I wasn’t blinded. I said, “John, don’t be a—”
“SHUT UP. I hope you likes Chinese, Monster Dave.” John threw up his fists. “Because today the menu is Kung Fu Chicken. And it’s ALL YOU CAN EAT, BABY.”
John flung himself into a pseudo-karate stance, one hand poised behind him and one in front, posed like a cartoon cactus. I thought for an odd moment he had moved his limbs so fast they had made that whoosh sound through the air but then I realized John was making that sound with his mouth.
“WAIT!” This was Amy. She ran over between us. “I got him in the eye with it! Don’t. John, don’t. Calm down.”
John let her stop him, of course. He reached around her and jabbed a finger at me.
“She just saved your life, my friend. I’d have been wearin’ you like a pair of pants.”
I sighed and said, “I’m going inside.”
I turned and walked toward my door. After a moment, John dropped his hands by his sides and said, “Yeah.” He picked his jacket and shirt from the snow and bundled them up in his hand. We strode in casually, like we were coming in after a tiring game of basketball. Amy stayed behind, standing there in the angry swarm of snowflakes. John turned to her, said, “Come in where it’s warm, Amy. We’ll hammer this out over a nice can of Leinenkugel’s.”