You know how sometimes when you’re drifting off to sleep you feel that jolt, like you were falling and caught yourself at the last second? It’s nothing to be concerned about, it’s usually just the parasite adjusting its grip.
I guess I should explain that a little further, but it will take a while. And you have to promise not to get mad. My name is David Wong, by the way. It’s on the cover. If you don’t know who I am, that’s perfect. That means you didn’t read the previous book in this saga which, to be frank, doesn’t paint me in the best light. No, don’t go read it now. It’s better if we get a fresh start. So, hello, stranger! I’m pleased to have this fresh opportunity to try to convince you I’m not a shithead. Just skip the next paragraph.
If you do know who I am, presumably because you read the previous book, I know what you’re thinking and in response I can only say, “No, fuck you.” Stop sending me hate mail. Please note that all correspondence regarding the class action lawsuit resulting from the publication of that book should be directed to the publisher’s legal department, not me. Go find the address yourself, you bunch of greedy fartsouls.
Now, on with our tale. Note: I apologize for the harsh language above, you’ll find that is not typical of me.
So here’s how fucked up this town is. My friend John and I were out celebrating his birthday last summer. At the end of the night we were good and drunk and we headed outside of town to go climb up the water tower and piss off of it. This had been John’s tradition for the last twenty years (if you do the math, you’ll realize that goes back to when he turned five, which really says more about John’s parents than John). This was a special year because they were in the process of tearing down that old water tower to build a new, more modern one and it didn’t look like the new one was going to have the kind of platform that you could piss off of, because this is no longer a world of men.
Anyway, it’s two in the morning and we’re taking turns pissing off of the tower (rather than going at the same time, because we weren’t raised by wolves). So it’s my turn and I’m right at that transcendent moment when the long stream of urine connects me and the ground below, when I see headlights off in the distance. A row of them, out on the highway, about a quarter mile of cornfield away from where I was pissing. That was enough to get my attention, because that is not a busy stretch of highway at any hour, let alone in the wee hours of the morning on a weekday. As the headlights got closer, I saw they belonged to a row of black military transports.
I squinted and said, “Are we being … invaded? Because I’m too drunk to pull off a Red Dawn.”
From behind me, John said, “Look at that one. In the back…” and my pissing immediately stopped because I sure as hell can’t go while somebody is talking to me. I found the last set of headlights and saw that they were waving lazily back and forth—the truck swerving out of control. Then, with a faint crunch, the vehicle connected with a telephone pole.
The rest of the convoy moved on without it.
Before I could even get zipped up, John was already climbing down the ladder, over my slurred protests. He managed to somehow not tumble off and break his neck, and jumped into my rusting old Ford Bronco. I followed him down and barely made it into the passenger seat before we were speeding down the lane, rows of corn whipping past, John with the Bronco in stealth mode with the headlights off.
We found the wrecked truck (which was built like one of the armored cars banks use, only minus any markings) off the side of the highway, its steaming grille looking like it was caught in the act of trying to eat the wooden pole. We were alone with it—none of the rest of the trucks had doubled back to check on the crash, a fact that at the time I was too intoxicated to find odd. We cautiously approached the vehicle. John went right to the driver’s side door, I guess to see if the driver was hurt. He peered into the window, yanked the door open, then just stood there, in silence.
I said, “What?”
Nothing from John.
I glanced nervously down the highway and said again, “What? Is he dead?”
Again, no answer.
I approached and reluctantly peered into the driver’s seat. Now it was my turn to stand there slackjawed, breathing air that stank of leaking antifreeze. My first impression was that the driver’s seat was empty, which wouldn’t have been that odd—maybe the driver was dazed and had stumbled out before we arrived. But it wasn’t empty. Sitting in the driver’s seat was a six-inch-tall plastic GI Joe action figure. It was half obscured by the seat belt, which was clasped around it.
John and I stood there trying to puzzle through what we were seeing, the gears in our heads creaking against a thick vodka sludge. Not that it would have made sense in perfect sobriety, either—the driver, what, crashed his truck into a tree, then before leaving the scene of the accident, decided to position a toy in the driver’s seat and buckle the seat belt around it? Why? So the first responders would think the Toy Story universe was real?
John pulled the keys from the ignition and closed the door. He glanced around outside, looking for the driver. Nobody in sight. Then he circled around to the back of the truck, to the windowless, locked rear doors. He banged on the door with his fist and said, “Hey, you guys all right in there? Looks like the accident turned the driver into a GI Joe.”
No answer. If we’d been sober, we’d probably have realized that there was a great chance that if anybody was inside this sinister, black, unmarked armored vehicle, they’d more likely jump out with guns and kick the shit out of us than thank us for our concern. But that didn’t happen, and John immediately went about figuring out which key on the key ring would open the door. After a dozen clumsy attempts, he found one that worked and slowly pulled it open.
No one was in the back of the truck.
Laying on the floor was a box. It was army olive green, and about the size of a toolbox, or a lunchbox for somebody who always got really hungry at work. It had a simple handle at the top. The sides were ribbed in a way that suggested it was reinforced or armored somehow. There was no visible latch or lock, and in fact there was no obvious place to try to wedge in a crowbar. Across the front, stenciled in yellow spray paint, were a series of markings that looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs.
John climbed into the truck and grabbed the box. I clumsily climbed in after him, banging my shin painfully off the bumper on the way, whispering, “John! No! Leave it!”
Inside, I realized that we weren’t alone. The mystery box was being guarded by six more GI Joe action figures, each carrying a little plastic assault rifle. They were wearing tiny black suits with face masks. I guess more Cobra than GI Joe, then.
John grabbed the box and jumped out into the night, oblivious to my slurred demands to leave it behind.
If you’re asking yourself what exactly John expected to find inside that truck, the easy guess would be, “a shitload of cash.” But we’re not criminals, if we had found a pile of white bags with big cartoon dollar signs on them, we’d have locked up the truck and called the cops. No, the answer is more complicated.
John didn’t know what he would find inside that truck, which is why he had to open the door. There are two kinds of people in the world; the first see locks and warning signs and say, “If they’re keeping it locked up so tight, that means it’s both dangerous and none of my business.” But the second type say, “If they want to keep it a secret so bad, then it must be worth seeing.” That’s John. That is, in fact, the only reason he hasn’t moved far away from this fucked-up town. If you don’t understand what I mean by “fucked-up,” well, I ain’t talking about the unemployment rate. This thing with the trucks, it wasn’t exactly an isolated incident.
Six centuries ago, the pre-Columbian natives who settled here named this region with a word that in their language translates to, “The Mouth of the Shadow.” Later, the Iroquois who showed up and inexplicably slaughtered every man, woman, and child in those first tribes renamed it a word that literally translates to, “Seriously, Fuck this Place.” When French explorer Jacques Marquette explored the area in 1673, he marked it on his map with a crude drawing of what appeared to be a black blob falling out of Satan’s butthole.
In 1881, a group of coal miners got trapped when an explosion caused the entrance of the mine to collapse. When rescuers showed up to the mouth of the mine, they found sitting in front of the rubble a coal-dusted kid, the youngest of the miners. His exact greeting to the men was, “Don’t dig ’em out. They sent me out here to tell you that. Them boys blew it themselves. Caved it in on purpose, to keep what they found in there from gettin’ out. So just leave it be. Now you there, with that pickax? I’d appreciate it if you’d go ahead and use that to cave in my skull, same as they did to that mine. Just maybe it’ll gouge out that blue eyeball that’s starin’ back at me from inside my own head.”
Things have only gone downhill from there.
Here, in this town, three friends will stroll into a dark alley, and only two will emerge from the other end. Those two will have no memory of the third. It’s rumored that a year ago, a five-year-old kid went into surgery to have a brain tumor removed. When the surgeon sawed open his skull, the “tumor” jumped out, a ball of whipping tentacles that launched itself at the surgeon and burrowed into his eye socket. Two minutes later, he and two nurses lay dead in the OR, their craniums neatly cleaned from the inside. I say this incident was “rumored” because at this point in the story, men in suits showed up, flashed official-looking ID and took away the bodies. The story in the paper the next day was that everybody died due to an oxygen tank explosion.
But John and I know the truth. We know, because we were there. We usually are. Tourists show up here because they’ve heard the town is “haunted” but that word does nothing to convey the situation. “Infested” is better. John and I have made this stuff our hobby, in the way that an especially attractive prisoner makes a hobby out of not getting raped. Jesus, that’s a terrible analogy. I apologize. What I’m saying is that it’s self-preservation. We didn’t choose this, we just have talents that makes us the equivalent of that new guy in the cell block who has a slim, hairless body and kind of looks like a woman from behind, and has an incredibly realistic tattoo of boobs on his back. He may have no desire at all to ever even touch a penis, but it’s going to happen, even if it’s just in the process of frantically slapping them away. Jesus, am I still talking about this? [John—please delete the above paragraph before it goes off to the publisher].