I came to and sat up. People were standing around, nobody running. No sign of Franky. Some time had passed. The horizon was shitting a sun, casting a glow on a layer of fog that was settling in the low areas like puddles of ghost piss.
I saw John about ten feet away, on his feet but bent over at the waist, gripping his pants at the knees. He was blinking, as if trying to focus his eyes.
“John? You all right?”
He nodded, still looking at the ground.
“Yeah. I’m thinkin’ that sound he made melted our brains. Did they get him?”
“Don’t know. I just came to.”
A white truck pulled up with a dish apparatus on the back. It had a TV station logo on the side. We were about to be on live TV. I tried to fix my hair with my hands.
Hospital staff in aqua scrubs were walking people back into the building. It looked like every policeman in the state was here, taking statements from people. I realized John and I should probably get going, before we got asked a bunch of questions that, once again, we didn’t have any non-crazy answers for. Not just about tonight, but everything. I turned toward John but John wasn’t there anymore. I went looking for him, giving one pair of cops a wide berth along the way. I thought about just going home without him, but then I saw him standing out by the street and talking to a goddamned reporter.
I stomped over there, walked right in front of the camera and was about to grab him by the collar and drag him away when John said, “Oh, shit!”
I followed John’s gaze and said, “Oh, shit.”
The reporter lowered her microphone and said, “Ooooh, shit.”
Army guys, a lot of them. National Guard, I guessed. They were wearing that grayish urban camo they wear these days. They had parked a green truck across the intersection where the hospital driveway met the road. Cars were lined up trying to get out, and soldiers were going down the line and issuing instructions to angry drivers.
Up by the truck a soldier raised a bullhorn and said:
“ATTENTION. DO NOT LEAVE THE AREA. THERE IS A SIGNIFICANT CHANCE YOU HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO A CONTAGEOUS PATHOGEN. LEAVING THE AREA COULD LEAD TO SPREADING THE INFECTION TO YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS. BY ORDER OF THE CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL YOU ARE NOT TO LEAVE THE AREA. PLEASE GO BACK TO THE LOBBY OF THE HOSPITAL WHERE YOU WILL BE GIVEN FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. THIS IS FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE AND YOU WILL BE RELEASED AS SOON AS IT IS DETERMINED THAT YOU DO NOT POSE AN INFECTION RISK TO THOSE AROUND YOU. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION. IF YOU ATTEMPT TO LEAVE THE AREA YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LEAVE THE AREA.”
John tossed down his cigarette, stamped it out and said, “Let’s leave the area.”
We left the reporter behind and circled around, looking for a way out. We found the AMBULANCE ONLY entrance around the block had a Humvee across it. The soldiers were forming a perimeter, camouflage dots looping around the grounds. We looked around behind the building, where there was a little strip of woods separating the hospital grounds from town. Same scene, with the addition of some guys unloading spools of razor wire from the back of a truck.
John spat and said, “This might sound like an odd thing to say right at this moment, but I wish those guys were wearing hazmat suits.”
“Yeah or at least something covering their mouths.”
“There wouldn’t happen to be a door around here, would there?”
“You know. One of the—”
“Oh. There’s not one in the hospital as far as I know. That would have been awfully convenient though.”
John thought for a moment, then said, “What about BB’s? It’s right on the other side of the trees there.” BB’s was a convenience store about two blocks away, but on the other side of that little wooded area. Among those trees was a deep drainage ditch we’d also have to cross.
“Man, I don’t know…”
He edged around to get a look at the Guardsmen standing between us and the woods. He said, “Come on, we wait ’til that guy goes to help unload some more of that wire, then run right through the gap there. But if we’re gonna do it, we have to do it now, before the sun comes all the way up.”
“And what makes you think those other guys won’t shoot us in the head?”
“They’re not gonna do that. All these guys know is they got up in the wee hours of the morning to fence off a hospital because a guy went on a shooting rampage and they’re afraid some diseases may have escaped. They don’t know there’s a, you know, monster situation going on.”
“And you know all of that how?”
“TJ Frye is over on the other side. You remember TJ? Came to that party a few years ago and stuck his dick in the jelly? He’s like a sergeant now. Said they haven’t been told shit.”
“Well, they’re gonna chase us.”
“Yeah but we just gotta make it to BB’s.”
John stripped off his shirt and started wrapping it around his face, like he was ready to join some riot in the Middle East. “Cover your face, unless you want them to identify you and show up at your house in an hour.”
Peering through a quarter-inch slit of wrapped T-shirt, we crouched low and stayed in the shadows until we reached the narrow stretch of lawn between us and the woods. We stayed like that for about fifteen minutes until one guard left his post to accept a cup of coffee from another. We sprinted. I immediately slipped in the wet grass and fell on my face. My shirt mask slipped over my eyes. I scrambled to my feet and just ran, as hard and fast as I could, nearly blind. I heard shouted commands but no gunshots.
A branch slapped me in the face and I knew I had reached the woods. I stumbled and clawed the shirt away from my eyes just in time to feel the ground give way under me. I was sliding down an embankment of wet grass and dead leaves, then splashed into freezing ankle-deep water. It was dark. There had been an early morning gloom out on the lawn but it was still midnight under the trees—no sign of John, or anyone else. I sloshed through the water and scrambled up the other side, pulling myself up with handfuls of weeds, knocking aside discarded grocery bags and flattened plastic Coke bottles.
A hand latched around my ankle. A different hand latched around my wrist. John up top, one of the soldiers on bottom. For a ridiculous moment I was pulled in opposite directions like a cartoon character, both men shouting frantic instructions at me. I tried to kick free and accidentally kicked the guy in the head in the process. It worked.
In three seconds, John and I were out of the woods and sprinting diagonally across a parking lot, through the bay of a car wash, down an alley and toward the gray bricks and rusting Dumpster that was the ass end of BB’s convenience store. I risked a look over my shoulder—
There were no fewer than ten soldiers following us now, the two in the lead carrying black plastic pistols with neon-green tips. They looked like toys, but I knew they were Tasers. I was eager to avoid my fifth lifetime Tasering if at all possible.
The restroom door was on the exterior of the store, around the corner to our left. I rushed up to it, grabbed a rickety knob and—
“Locked!” I said, trying to catch my breath. “The key! Inside! You have to get the key from the counter inside!”
John shoved me aside, reared back, and kicked the door. The whole knob and latch mechanism exploded. We crammed ourselves inside, pushing the broken door closed.
One … two … three …
“Hey! You two! Get the fuck out of there and lay the fuck down on the pavement before we have to—”
The soldier was cut off in midword.
I pulled open the door to find we were surrounded by panties.
We stepped out of the ladies’ dressing room at the Walmart on the opposite side of town. John and I had traveled about 2.5 miles in approximately zero seconds. Right now, at BB’s, several very confused National Guardsmen were staring at an extremely filthy, and completely empty, public bathroom.
We stepped into the aisle of the nearly empty store, two muddy men with T-shirts wrapped around their heads. John unwrapped his and said, “What is this? Walmart?”
So, I wasn’t completely honest with the psychiatrist about the whole thing with the mysterious door in the burrito stand and the Asian dude who disappeared into it. John and I have identified half a dozen of those doors around town, and we know where they lead: to each other. The only thing is you never knew to which of the other doors they were going to take you, it was basically doorway roulette. I mean, you’re not going step out in Beijing or anything, it’s always another door around town. All the ones we’ve found, anyway. But they never seem to go to the same place twice. Why? Because this whole town is fucked up, that’s why. I keep trying to tell you that. You don’t want to come here. It’s exhausting.
John and I didn’t draw much attention as we moved through the store since, at this particular store in this particular town, we weren’t even the filthiest people there. We just walked right out the front door and headed back toward town along the shoulder of the highway. It was a wet, chilled morning under a lethargic November sky that had rolled out of bed and thrown on an old, gray, grease-stained T-shirt.
John said, “Did you hear? They never found Franky.”
“What do you think happened? You think that bug thing took over his brain?”
“Hey, why not?”
“You think he’s gonna turn up again?”
If you’re asking yourself why the men with guns chasing us couldn’t just use the magic door and follow us right to Walmart, it’s because for most people, the doors are just doors. Same as for most people, the spider monster in my house would have been invisible, just as it was for Franky. Same as how if you’d been in the bathroom with me all those months ago when I saw that shadowy shape outside my shower, you’d have seen nothing. You might have sensed something, just as in your everyday life you might sit in a dark house and feel like you’re not alone, or have a nagging suspicion that something slipped around a corner just a moment before you looked. The feeling can usually be expressed by the phrase, “Of course there’s nothing there. Now.”