They’ve given me a laptop with a word processor because my mouth seems to shut down every time I try to speak about it. And there are a lot of people here who are asking me about the whole thing. There’s an investigator. And a psychiatrist, too.
It seems I can write about it well enough, though. So that’s what I’ll do, from inside this cell. I’ll write it all down for everyone to see. Maybe that will answer some of their questions and answer some of my own.
We were supposed to get a light drizzle on Tuesday, but by quarter past nine it turned out to be one bastard of a rainstorm. The gutters outside were all swollen with grey water from the last snow patches of the year and raindrops just about the size your finger were pummelling the windows at my friend Travis Hudson’s place, the first house you see in Perth County, just before you hit Stratford by way of Line 6.
Trav and I were in the living room, listening to the rain thrumming against the roof after catching a news broadcast. We caught it after switching off of one farce of a Leafs game. It had been a segment on the Welton girl. Maybe you heard about her. She visited that bad neighbourhood over on Willow Street. Then just up and altogether disappeared. Janice Welton. She was fourteen.
The coverage ended with a pretty hopeless update on the investigation, and by all accounts it was shaping up to look like an abduction.
Trav shook his head and turned the TV off. “That’s so fucked up,” he said. “Probably was in that part of town looking for drugs, too.”
I nodded and then sat back to mull over how dark and freaky the world could be. I heard a rumble from somewhere outside. Thunder coming.
“I think I’m going to hit the sack early tonight,” he said. “There’s the TV if you get bored.”
And that’s right when the front door burst open and we heard someone stomp in.
Trav and I exchanged glances, and then got up to go see.
At first I barely recognized him, he looked that shaken up. I’ve never seen him look so scared in my life. Not to mention he was soaked to the cuffs of his pants, his long dark hair covering his face in wavy wet strands. His skin was white as milk and he was shivering. In one hand he was gripping a duffle bag. The other hand was …
“It’s Tim,” he said. “He’s — he’s outta control.”
When I heard his voice, it clicked: it was Nathan, Trav’s younger brother, and Tim’s older.
His eyeballs rolled back in their sockets so far that for a moment it looked like he only had two cue balls in there. “Look … look what he did to my fucking hand!”
He held it up.
Dread put its cold hands around my heart and squeezed.
It looked like somebody had spiked the pointed end of a screwdriver through the flesh a couple times; two crimson punctures in his palm, right under the pinkie. Rills of blood oozed out of the holes, running down his wrist like thin tendrils.
“Oh,” was the only stupid sound that came out of my gaping mouth.
Trav, cool calculator as always, allowed himself a frustrated groan as he ran for the washroom. “Gauze,” I heard him say, and I dimly recalled that he kept some bandages somewhere there. He was saying something else, but I wasn’t hearing it. I don’t know about you but the sight of blood makes me queasy as hell. My temples were throbbing so hard that it was like a drummer pounding the kick right next to my head.
Trav, between the thwumps: “… vodka … vodka …”
Then he shouted: “Will you get the VODKA, John!?”
It was a good thing he shouted too, because that managed to snap me out of it. I flew into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Absolut — almost dropped the damn thing, my hands were shaking that bad — then came back.
We got Nate’s coat off and laid him down onto the couch. I held his bloody arm up while Trav tied a towel around his forearm so tight I saw the muscles in his neck bulge like taut rope. He gave me a nod and I doused the wound with a healthy amount of the clear liquor. Nate gritted his teeth and sucked air in through them as the alcohol did its work. Then Trav wiped the gashes with another towel and wrapped the bandages all around.
As soon as Trav got about three layers on, Nate swiped the vodka out of my hands and downed a good gulp. He shuddered and coughed, and his face got redder. I have to admit it was pretty frightening for me to see him this way, but Trav only sat him up and clapped him on the back.
“There you go,” Trav said. “Good.”
“Call an ambulance,” I said.
Suddenly Nate’s good hand shot out and gripped my wrist clamp-like. He gave me a hard glare. “No,” he says. “No, we can’t, we can’t. The bag. We gotta bring it to him. Bring it to him. Before anything else. Or — or he’ll do something. He’ll do something bad.”
I wrenched his hand off me and took a step back. Slowly I pulled my gaze away from Nate and looked over to the duffle bag on the floor. A duffle bag. You could store quite a few pounds of ‘product’ in that thing, if you had reason to. Tim had reasons. He always had plenty of reasons.
It occurred to me then that I hadn’t seen nor heard from Timothy in a long time, ever since he got kicked out of Trav’s. Tim was always a fiend for his weed, but he kept a thumb over it pretty well while he had a job at the Hitachi factory. Then something happened — they didn’t pay him, or maybe he just made it out that way — and he quit the place. As far as I was told, he spent so much of his savings on his vices that after just a month he went on OW. That was about when Trav took him. But by then it turned out Tim was too far down a winding road and he’d just been pushing the gas pedal down harder and harder. Once in a while, when I’d visit Trav, we’d hear Tim from in Trav’s guestroom like he sure had a bad case of the sniffles, then he’d come out and wander around for a bit with his pupils like two black holes. Sometimes he’d have ‘friends’ over, though none of them stayed more than an hour, and they’d always leave with coat pockets looking a little bulgier than when they had come. Trav said he even found a bulb in Tim’s room.
So there was a big fight about it. Trav didn’t want him dealing in his house, and Tim just refused. Said he needed to so he could save money and ‘get himself made’ and this and that. Trav didn’t buy any of that horseshit and told him to take off. I didn’t even hear mention of Tim for months after that.
And now here was Nate with his bloody hand and this bag he apparently needed to bring to Tim.
I looked back to Nate. “This is … this is about drugs, isn’t it? What the hell’s he dragged you into, Nate? Are you running for him?”
“We just gotta bring it to him!” Nate wailed. “That’s it. I just … I can’t go back there alone.” He raised his bloodied, bandaged hand up, and a funny grin crept onto his face. “I think it’s not as bad as it looks, anyhow. Huh, guys?”
There wasn’t any more leakage, anyway, that much was certain. Still, it was all a pretty sickening situation, and right then I felt my stomach turn upside-down. “I’m gonna puke,” I muttered. I grabbed a tuft of my hair into one fist and headed for the washroom.
As I went I heard Trav from behind me just before I shut the door: “Nate, you tell me exactly what’s going on —”
I was in there for quite some time. I managed hold back a vom, but I was gagging and drinking hard water straight from the tap. I could hear them in the other room from beyond the closed door: Trav’s steady voice, and then Nate’s higher, faster one. It was all fairly muffled, especially under the sound of the running tap, but it sounded like Trav had one hell of an interrogation going. I heard Nate’s voice hitch a few times between indiscernible sentences, and at one point it sounded like nothing but a blubbering babble. It’s a crazy kind of thing to find myself saying this about a grown man … but, yeah: he was crying.
I stayed in there a little longer than I’d wanted to, not because I was sick anymore — that had passed — but because they both started yelling. They went back and forth shouting a few times, and gradually it sounded like Nate ran out of anything to say. It ended with some quick-fire remarks from Trav. Then there was nothing but silence.
When I did come out, I was surprised to see they were both standing at the front door with their coats on. Nate seemed slightly better, all things considered, but his eyes were rimmed red and whenever I glanced at him he looked away.
Trav, however, looked … different than before. I say different because he still wore his usual stoic expression … but there was something else in there, underneath the expression, like a shadow in his eyes. Something elemental … primal …
Before I could place it, I noticed something a little more concerning gripped in his hand: an olive green nylon case that was sort of the shape of a fat L. I knew what he kept in there, and I knew Nate did too: one beauty of an Inglis Hi-Power. Their grandpa had got it during his service, sometime between the Second War and the Cold War, and passed it on to the eldest, Trav.
“Hope you’re feeling okay enough for a drive,” Trav tells me.
I raised my hands, confused. “You’re shitting me,” I said. “Come on. What’ve you got your piece out for?”
Trav tilted his head at Nate. That strange shadow seemed to dance around inside those hard dark eyes of his. “If what he’s saying is true, I want to bring it along. Just to scare Tim. If he tries anything again.”
I was slightly surprised to hear no objection from Nate.
Then Trav kneeled down next to that duffle bag, grabbed onto the top zipper strap, looked up at me. “Nate’ll tell you everything on the way. But I’m going to show you this first. He showed me while you were in the bathroom. So you’ll understand. So you’ll believe.”
I shook my head, curiosity just barely keeping a wave of apprehension at bay, and knelt down in front of the bag.
“Don’t piss your pants, now,” he says, and he unzipped the top flap with one good tug. There was one of those Rubbermaid containers in there, about the size of a shoebox, with holes poked in the top. He slowly lifted one corner of the lid, opening it just a finger’s width.
I peered in.
Something peered back at me.
Trav snapped the thing shut. I stood and a kind of quiet cough escaped my mouth, which was now stuck in this sort of revolted grin. My eyelids were glued open. The back of my head got hot and tingled, almost felt like it was burning.
I looked at Trav and he was just glaring at me from under his brow.
I had half a mind to just hoof it out of there. Fuck this. Fuck them.
Well, that look on Trav …
Put it this way: you know that saying, ‘A true friend will help you move a body’? I guess that’s kind of how this was. Whatever wacked out shit these two were involved in now, there was a certain obligation here. I’d known Trav since I was thirteen, and he’d been there for me ever since. Always had a plan, always knew what to do. Helped me through my darkest times. But I’d never known the guy to need anything of me, or anyone else. That darkness marring his expression now, though, hinted at a kind of resigned distress, the kind you see on a chess player making the move he knows could be his last one. No doubt about it — he was genuinely afraid of something. And if this was a situation grave enough to get Travis Hudson afraid, I knew I had to help.
“Let’s go,” he said. Then he opened the door and held it open.
Nate went through carrying the bag and disappeared behind a curtain of rainfall. Expecting some explanation for all this absurdity, I found myself grabbing my coat, even despite what I’d just seen in that bag replaying in my mind’s eye in greyscale like some weird-out scene in the The Twilight Zone.
It had been an ugly, bushy thing with tiny black-bead eyes, wire-whiskers, and knot-teeth. The upturned-Y shape of its mouth trembled as it had sniffed about, left, right, and left and right, searching for an escape from its plastic prison.
It had been a goddam rat.
I followed after Nate, but not before making double-sure I had my phone. Just before I went through the doorway I felt Trav’s hand on my shoulder.
I turned to him, and he put something in my hand.
If it had been under any other circumstance, I suppose I might have laughed. Now I simply nodded and closed my hand around it.
We set out into that starless night, backs bent against the rain like smugglers.
The rain was coming down so hard and heavy that it sounded a lot like the falls over in Niagara. It threatened to drown you if you looked up to that uniform grey, moonless sky for too long.
We quick got into Trav’s Ram, one of those four-by-four monsters with the steel cross-guard over the grille, scrambling to get sheltered from that cold water pouring down.
Trav slammed the keys in and twisted the ignition hard. The engine let loose a mechanical snarl before idling at a steady growl. “Nate, now you tell it how you told me,” he says.
I heard Nate let out a sigh from behind me. In the rear-view I saw he had his good hand resting over his eyes.
“You know John,” Trav says. “Tell him.” Then he shifted into drive and rolled us out of the crushed stone driveway.
There was silence for almost a full minute as we headed down Line 6. The rain was drubbing on the hood of the cab and smacking the windshield, and I remember it making me feel all on edge. I heard more thunder buffet through that night sky above like some angry god cracking his whip.
I opened my mouth to say something — I’m not sure what, but something — but then Nate cleared his throat and finally got to talking.
“I think it was the meth,” he said. He went quiet again for a brief moment. When he started up again, the stink of shame was on his breath. “He kept calling me up and asking if I knew dealers. He knew I dabbled and he knew I could get it for him. I just … I felt so bad for him. That dump he moved into was draining him dry with the rent. He was fiending, man. Begging. So I hooked him up. I figured he just needed —”
“He needed a kick in the ass,” from Trav. “Not more drugs.”
Nate shifted in his seat. “Yeah, well … It’s not so clear-cut sometimes. He was so damn depressed. I saw the scars on his wrists. I hated to see him that way. You know how depression is, right, John?”
I nodded. Damn right I did. You’d fall for any kind of potion or magic or love that offered to pull you out of that pit, even if it was only for a little while. You’d likely also find yourself navigating through one very grey haze if someone you cared about was in there.
“I did it with him a few times,” Nate said. “At first it was fun, laughing and stuff, seeing a smile back on his face. He really did seem closer to his old self again whenever we got high. But yeah. I know. I should have known. You can’t get away from that shit. Not with a personality like his.
“Well, he kept asking and I kept hooking him up. He got all buddy-buddy with me — and … and …” He slammed one fist into the side door and lolled his head around. “Fuck me. You were always the Big Bro, Trav. Calm and collected, handling shit, on top of your life with your business degree and your house and your truck and all that, and Mom and Dad were always so damn proud. And me? The middle kid? Shit. I finally felt important to someone. I felt like — I don’t know … like now I could be Big Bro. And anyhow it’s not like anyone else was paying attention to him no more. First Mom freaks out on him after he stops taking the medication, then Dad rages ’cause he won’t keep the pot outta the house, then you —”
“Okay,” Trav says. “I think I get it. But we can’t change the past.”
Nate sighed, nodded noncommittally. “Anyhow, yeah, I guess I got a little too overeager about the whole situation. So one night I showed up with the best stuff around. He was beyond happy. Practically jumping for joy. We start a good sesh, and he’s just about done with his bulb when he says, ‘Hey, Nate-man … I’m not getting anything off this.’ I almost jumped out off my shoes. I’m like, ‘What!? That stuff was more expensive than plutonium, dude!’ He just repeats himself, and I really start wondering if I’d got shystered. I don’t know if it was that particular batch — I stuck to my own stuff, I only had enough of the good stuff for him, see — or if it had been something else he got his hands on, but anyhow … after that night he wasn’t the same.”
You’ve heard the rumors about Stratford, right? I mean, I’ve lived here all of my adult life and it’s not exactly like people always walk around town ripped out of their minds, at least not as much as like in Hamilton or Kitchener, but there is a scene here. And there’s no doubt in the notion that sometimes you get a bad bag. Laced with caffeine or copper salt or who the hell knows what. Someone once told me that it can be cut with MSM because it’s white, odorless, and doesn’t leave residue. You wouldn’t even notice.
“I got especially worried after that,” Nate continued. “Nothing seemed to be working for him. Nothing, John. Every time I visited, we’d try to have a sesh and he’d moan about how he couldn’t get high anymore. That was weird, because we ended up sharing some and damned if I wasn’t a kite in the clouds off some of that. I started getting kind of annoyed, too, because now I started bringing him other stuff like coke and e-bombs and shit. I brought him everything and anything I could snag, dude, hoping to get him smiling and laughing again, and then he’d barely even touch it. And on top, he was looking all gangly and pale. Like he wasn’t eating or going outside. I’d seen his fridge, too. Cleaned out except for some beer.
“So one night I came over once with some Whoppers, no pickles, how he likes them, and he was just sitting in a corner with his hoodie over his face — you know how he does that sometimes, when he’s pissed off — only he had every goddam curtain in the place pulled closed and all the lights were off.
“ ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask him.
“ ‘Hungry,’ he mumbles.
“I turned the room light on and held the BK bag out. ‘Yeah. Figured you might want something.’
“Immediately he says, ‘Leave it on the counter. I don’t wanna sesh or nothing today. Just wanna be alone.’
“Well, I was pretty bummed to hear that, but I told him it was okay and no big deal. When he’s in that kind of mood you know that you just gotta let him alone until it passes. I went into the kitchen, put the burgers on the counter like he asked.
“I was about to head out when he calls, ‘Nate-man. Turn off that fucking light.’ I did turn it off, wanting to let him have his privacy and all that or whatever it was. I left right after, though. I gotta say I was a little creeped out. Nothing but shadows and seeing your little brother on the floor there like a dark lump.
“The next day I visited, and again he’s got all the lights off and the curtains crossed. I went over to the fridge to grab a beer, and lo and behold there’s the Whoppers on the counter, not even an inch out of place where I’d left them. Still wrapped. Can you get a load of that? He says he’s hungry, but he won’t eat?
“So eventually I find him in his room, sitting in a corner again in this gloom. I manage to get him at least sitting on his floor mattress and he curls up on one end with his hoodie on, same one, same way. Hood over the face. I’m on the other end, hitting my bulb and beers pretty hard, trying to shake this hopeless feeling about everything and wondering if I’ll get a good idea what to do with him. I thought about calling Doctor Patel. I really did. Except something happened then.
“Okay, you know that house is old, right? About a hundred years? Well, I saw a … a fucking rat scuttle across the floor. I could see it even though there wasn’t much sun in that room, just a bit of the greyish sunlight that managed to pass through those cotton curtains. This thing scampers right up onto the bed, sticking its nose here and there, all curious, probably looking for food. Tim suddenly sat forwards — no doubt he saw it too. I pointed at it and I was just about to say something when one hand creeped out form the folds of his sweater. Only … it didn’t look much like a hand in that dimness, John. I gotta say I was pretty sauced by then, but to me it … it really looked like a claw. It reached out … grabbed the rat … brought it up to his mouth, and —”
“Stop it,” I said.
“— he sunk his teeth right into it. Sounded like it, anyhow. There was this horrid little squeak and a gross squishing sound.”
“Come on, knock it off,” I said. I looked over at Trav. He was wordless, sombre, just looking through the rain and into the horizon where I could now see the Stratford cityscape coming up. Orange light from the old-style streetlamps dotted the jagged black horizon of pointed roofs.
“You think what’s in that bag in the back there is a joke?” Nate asks. “You think my hand is?”
I have to admit, I didn’t believe a word of this yarn. Even despite those things.
I should have, though.
Before I could retort, he went on:
“Well ’course I asked him what the fuck he’s doing. He just kept chomping away, squashy noises, blackish blood dripping onto the sheets. I’m freaked out. I get up and ask him, ‘Tim, Are you —’ Nuts, I was gonna say nuts. And that’s when it hit me, as I bet it hit you just now. I wasn’t even talking to Tim no more. Something was wrong with his head. Brain was firing neurons into the wrong places. All the meds, the depression, then the drugging, drinking … it just broke something up there.
“I head downstairs, leaving everything behind. My bong, bulb, hooch. Everything. Didn’t even cross my mind. ‘No way,’ I’m saying out loud. ‘No way, man. This is crazy. I’m calling —’ And suddenly something grips my arm. And it hurt, goddammit, it hurt. I hear his voice in my ear, only it was thicker and scratchier and real harsh, as if he was trying to push it through thick layers of dust. ‘You won’t call anyone. Because if you do, I’ll find out, Nate. And then I might do something, something real bad.’
“Then just like that he lets go. I got the hell out.”
I was at a loss for anything to say. Part of me half-suspected this was merely a recollection of some drug-fuelled hallucination, that maybe Nate had finally, as Tim apparently had, crossed over from the land of the real to the realm of the unreal. There was a question, though. If this really did happen, then: “Why didn’t you go to the cops or something right then?” I ask.
“I was scared! Your brother grabbing you like that? And sounding like some fucking lizard? Threatening you if you tell anyone? And anyhow, I … I left a lot of shit in his room, too, not just mine but all the stuff he never used. There was enough there to get me or him in jail. Or both of us. Easy.
“I just went home and lay in my bed, really desperately hoping this was all just some kinda nightmare. Not only was Tim behaving bat-shit crazy, but now I had a big stash over there. So if anyone went over there they’d find out about everything. I’d be blamed for this. God, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to sleep and let it all go away. Maybe you’ve never been that scared. Where your body and brain just, like, shuts off, and you just kinda feel so … so small and useless. Tinier than anything. What’s that word for it?”
“Infinitesimal,” Trav recommended.
“Yeah … infinite-test-mall … or whatever. Anyway that’s exactly how I felt. Like nothing. Little blip in the big bad hungry universe.”
Lightning lashed the blackened horizon with reptile tongue.
Dark and freaky world, alright.
“I was still riding the tail end of my high and damn if I couldn’t shut my brain off. I paced around into the morning hours, worrying, trying to shake the heebie-jeebies, jumping at goddam shadows. At around six I get a text from him. It’s an address, and then underneath it says, ‘Go there. Pay guy for it. Bring over. Leave it at bottom of stairway inside and don’t stay. Don’t tell. Or I think I’ll do something bad.’ And I start feeling all infinite-test-mall all over again. I’m thinking he wants to get his hands on something even harder — whatever the fuck that could be — since nothing else was working. And that last line.
“ ‘I’ll do something bad.’
“Look, by then I explained that weird shit away. I could accept that I’d just been tripping. I’d been drunk and high and things just got a little wacky. Sure. Maybe I’d just remembered things wrong, mixed it all up with fantasy. But that text made one thing for sure — that if I didn’t do what he said, he’d do something bad. And still … what if it hadn’t been fantasy?
“I went to the address, not just because of the threat, but actually pretty curious what exactly he needed so bad. Well I told the guy there I was here to pick up Tim’s stuff and paid him up front. He gets this huge smile, disappears inside, and sure enough he brings out this Rubbermaid with holes poked in the top. Something was moving around inside.
“Told me it was a live-feeder. Had a breeding colony. You know, for feeding snakes with. He even asks me what kinda snake I was feeding.”
“Jesus Christ, Nate,” I said.
“Yeah, well … I wasn’t going to do it at first, okay? I mean, really? But this was proof none of it was a drug-dream. My brother was out of his fucking mind. Sad but true. So either I bring him this goddam thing, or what? He hurts me? He hurts himself? Do I call the cops and he tries to hurt them? So that’s how it went for a few days. He’d text me, I’d deliver. I’d never see him, but each time I brought a new one the old was gone. Call me a fry-brain, but things were cool enough that way.
“That’s all what led to tonight. I was driving to his place, to bring him more of these bloody rats. By this time I’d been clean and sober for some time. Paranoia had died down quite a bit. And when I pulled into his driveway, finally the full weight of reality came down on me. My brother using me to support his diseased habits. I had only helped him get worse.
“I got outta the car and didn’t take the bag. I went to the front steps, ready to tell him enough was enough, and I noticed he didn’t have the curtains over the windows no more. Nope, he had plywood boards nailed to the inside frames.
“When I opened the door, the first thing I noticed was that the place was pitch-dark.
“The second thing was this smell … raunchy, meaty. Like, I dunno, the inside of an emptied Spam tin or something.
“Third was the eyes staring at me, striking maroon, the way a cat’s is when they’re looking at a bit of light. You know? Penny eyes. Only there was no light, John.
“ ‘Come closer,’ he says in that weird, brassy voice.
“ ‘What’s happening to you, man?’ I ask him.
“ ‘I’m not sure,’ he says. ‘But it feels kinda neat. Come here. I’ll show you.’
“I flicked the foyer light on and nearly jumped out of my skin. He was crouched like a panther when they’re ready to pounce — aw, what’s the fucking word?”
“Poised,” from Trav.
“Yeah — poised. His hood was over his head and its shadow was covering his face, but still those eyes were all burning. His clothes were all tattered up, man. The frayed hems of his pants didn’t quite reach his ankles. At first I thought his pants shrunk somehow. I saw his feet, too. They were twice as long as a normal foot, John, and the toenails were poking outta his torn socks looking like they hadn’t been clipped for a year. When he stood, I drew in a breath real sharp. He was taller.”
“ ‘I’m calling a doctor,’ I tell him, my voice is all shaky and I can barely put the words together. My whole body felt tensed up and my hands were balled into tight fists.
“Well, he starts shaking all over. ‘No, no, no,’ he growls. ‘I told you, Nate. No you’re not.’ And then he pulled that hood back. Just for a moment.”
By then we’d turned on the corner of Willow and Victoria, and — despite the heat blasting in that truck — I felt even colder than I did when we were out in that rain. I didn’t want to believe this. No. People just don’t want to believe things like that.
I knew this guy named Karl Dietrich who was a plumber for a local contractor I’d worked with a few times. He’d just put a baby in his girl and the shotgun wedding was coming up. Karl was apparently already married to his hunting, though, and me and the other workers would all talk shit about him; how he should be doing more overtime or something, to get ready for the wedding and the kid, not going out and shooting little birdies.
One day — middle of summer — he went on some hunting trip. After that, he just … stopped showing up for work. I heard he’d told his girl to take off with the baby and go live with her parents. Can you believe that?
Well, I saw him at Eddley’s bar the following weekend, quaffing his tenth or so Bud. I asked him why he’d pull such a shit thing like that on Sheryl.
He stood, looked me straight in the eye, and asked me if I’d ever seen any kind of an animal about the size of a caribou with limbs like a mantis, wearing a scowling, shark-toothed face on backwards.
What, exactly, the fuck do you say to something like that?
I had just shook my head and headed out, leaving my own beer untouched.
Turned out Karl killed himself that night, according to a small article in The Herald the next day.
Look, I’m not trying to say Karl was all good up there; a hard job and hard drinking can get the better of lots of people. But I guess I’m also trying to say that there could be all sorts of things in the world that are so dark and freaky it could murder a mind just to see it.
Trav took another turn onto Lancaster. Last turn.
“What did you see, Nate?” I ask.
“It …” He swallowed a lump, audible even over the Ram’s roaring. “… it resembled his face, as far as the nose and the general shape of his chin and cheeks … only … only the skin looked like it had been stretched back on both sides about two times more than it oughtta. The sides of his lips almost reached his ears. He didn’t have much hair on his head no more. And his teeth? They were big, John. No — big’s not the right word. Long, they were long. Especially the two at the top of each side. What do you call them, Trav?”
“Yeah. Those. They were the way some dinosaur fossil’s are. The raptor.”
My mind felt loosened, a little less focused, like I’d had a bit too much to drink. I was pretty glad Trav had that army man’s blaster, right then. And I crazily began wondering if the thing Trav had put in my hands might have a very practical purpose.
Nate went on to finish: “Then he pulled the coif right down again and started screaming at me to shut the light off. I was scared like crazy and out of pure instinct I slammed that light switch down again. Then I sprinted out the door, and just as I’m about to jump that flight of steps his hand was around my wrist. He yanked me back, my heels dragging against the porch floor. Then my hand was in his mouth. Then he bit me. Motherfucker bit my hand.
“Suddenly he let go. He actually cringed, too, and then he backed away and disappeared back inside. I dunno if he just didn’t like those sodium streetlights in front of his driveway or what, but I had time to run, and I sure did. I got in my car, backed out and peeled out, and drove right the fuck out of town with my bleeding hand tucked tight under my pit. I didn’t even know where I was going, exactly, just knew that I needed to get away, and Line 6 was right there.
“I thought I might drive forever. Then I remembered I still had Tim’s … delivery in the backseat. And maybe I could drive forever, but would he then chase me forever? Would he do something bad to me? I didn’t know what the fuck he might be capable of now. And Trav’s was just coming up. And he’s got that gun from grandpa. And … I thought … I never wanted to drag you guys into this. But it’s too late. We have to bring him the rodent or I don’t know what he’ll do. Maybe he’ll get hungry, too hungry. I just can’t … I can’t go back there alone.”
Now Trav pulled the big Ram into the small driveway of Tim’s house, one of those Edwardian beasts that were built during the grist-and-sawmill days at some point during the 19th century. They’ve pretty much all have been turned into crack houses now. The main staircase under the portico of the front porch jutted out like a crooked tongue out of a screaming mouth.
Trav killed the engine, stuffed the keys into his pocket.
“Bring the gun,” Nate says.
“No doubt,” from Trav, and he slipped it out from the case. “We all go. Nate, you bring the bag in. I’ll watch out. And John, if Tim tries anything … I want you to hold that up to him.”
I slid my fingers over the bumpy length of what he had given me, realizing I’d long-forgotten what all the parts meant. I hoped it wouldn’t matter.
We got out. The rain was just as strong, and now a ghostly grey fog had rolled in, surrounding us but never seeming to touch us, white as the smoke from a pipe. The house loomed over us like an ugly face, with two windows on the second floor for eyes. And sure enough those windows were dark as tar, as if somebody painted them black on the inside.
Trav was already up the stairs with one hand on the door handle by the time I got up the driveway. Nate passed me, saying, “Let me get the foyer light, okay? I know where it is. He hates it.”
Trav looked to Nate, then me, then threw open the door and headed in. Nate scampered in next, turned the light on. From somewhere far away thunder muttered and growled, and I found my legs working on their own, bringing me in last. I suppose I subconsciously felt the need to stay close to them, instead of outside, alone in that strange, grey otherworld.
We all stood there in the foyer for a moment. Looking. Listening. I don’t know about the other guys, but I smelled it right off.
Do you know how the butcher’s section smells at a grocery store? Not the smell of the shelving area, but that odor that wafts over whenever the guy in the apron comes out from the back, when those plastic doors with the plastic windows flap open? The smell from his kitchen? It’s a pretty cruel smell. Hits you first with iron, then licks you with the sickeningly sweet undertone of gobbet. This smell was like that.
The only light was coming from a faux-chandelier that threw a glow about as yellow as urine. Tim was nowhere to be seen; the house was open-concept and you could see well into the other rooms from where we stood. The main stairway, however, led up into shadows. I bumped into Nate while he was putting the bag down.
Nate quavered: “Okay that’s it. Let’s go now.”
“I want to see him,” Trav said.
Nate looked at him wildly and grabbed the side of his coat. “No, no. Come on, man. There’s no point —”
Trav shoved him off, his face flat but flushed red. “Why do you really think I came along, huh? Help you fuck our brother up a little more? Deliver fucking rats? I have to see for myself just what’s what in all this bullshit, Nate. God knows there’s been enough already with Tim. And now you’re all caught up in some madness of his. If it is all true, I want to see, because if something — anything — happens, you’re going to need witnesses for this fucking Tales from the Crypt.”
Nate just stared at him wide-eyed and mouth hanging open as if he’d been slapped. Slowly he closed his mouth and drew a sharp breath through his nose. “Okay,” he says, “okay, Trav. You do what you want. You go see. But I’m waiting in the truck. And first sign of trouble you come back out and we leave.”
Nate marched to the door, stopped. “And keep all the lights on,” he said. “No matter what.” Then he headed out. That was the last time I saw him.
Trav took the bag in one hand, gun in the other, and simply started up the stairs. If Tim was anywhere, he’d likely be up there, in his room.
Me? I almost went with Nate. Really. But after a moment’s consideration, I decided to be brave. Best bud, and all. Trav was right about the witness thing, too. I’m no lawyer, but I’d heard lots of stories about insanity verdicts.
Not to mention that Trav was the one packing the thirteen-bullet life-assurance policy.
We tiptoed up those stairs like two burglars. By the time we got to the top, that stink was doubled. Meat. Fresh-cut meat. The mephitic odor of a just-opened bag of cold cuts. I thought about the rat in the bag and it started to feel like someone was stirring my guts around with a steely-cold spoon.
We found another light switch and flipped it on. There was a short hall, and one closed door at the end.
I made a soft little gasp and whispered: “Look what we’re walking in, Trav. How many fucking rats did Nate bring him?”
It was all on the hallway floor, splotches and puddles, all of it leading to that door. All red as cranberry juice.
Trav, not missing a beat, just walked down to the door, careful not to step in the puddles. I slowly followed, even though I can assure you I was now shaking in my shoes. Trav placed the bag next to his feet, then raised a fist up and beat on the door.
“Tim?” he called. “You in there? It’s Trav. I got John with me. We came to give you your, ah, dinner.”
There was silence for a moment. Then I heard some footsteps from the other side of that door — more like a staggered dragging, accompanied with a sound like running the ends of twigs against hardwood.
Then a voice said, “Where’s Nate?”
I almost ran right at that moment. That voice wasn’t human. It was low and gravelly and alien, like the pitch had been turned down a few notches.
“Outside,” Trav said. “Didn’t want anything to happen to his other hand.”
Then that corrupted voice spoke right through the door. “Open the door and bring the rat in here.”
“Sure,” Trav said. “But first tell me how you’ve been doing, Tim.”
“Never mind. Nobody cares about me anyway.”
Trav shook his head. “We do, Tim. And we tried to help. Everybody tried. We all tried to help in the only ways we knew how. I’m sorry we weren’t enough.”
Then the voice: “Just bring the goddam critter in here.” It sounded awfully eager.
Now Trav stepped back and held the gun up, pointed it at that door. I saw something in his face now that tore my heart up to see. It was sadness, pure and simple. “It’s not just going to be the rat, is it?” he asked. “I think you’ve gone beyond that, Tim. I don’t think it’s enough anymore.”
And suddenly I made the connection Trav had probably already made, probably even when Nate was telling the tale to him that first time while I’d been in the washroom. The timing and pieces of these events fit together too perfect. That fresh-meat smell. The large amounts of blood on the floor — too much to come from a few rats.
The Welton girl had disappeared just yesterday, you see – during dark.
“Bring it in or I’ll come out and get it.” the voice told him.
Trav looked at me from under his brow, and pointed at what was dangling from my hand. I nodded and raised it up slightly, its beads clicking softly against each other in my trembling hand. I was raised Catholic, and so was Trav, but I never really put much stock in it. Trav, on the other hand, always wore something — Mother Mary medal, INRI ring, something. Tonight it had been the rosary he’d got for first communion.
I found myself putting a lot more stock into the faith, right then. I suppose Trav obviously had too. Maybe that’s why he said what he did next:
“You better come out, then, Tim …” He cocked the hammer of that old pistol.
There was silence. For a long time. To be totally honest, I began to feel as if nothing would happen. Then that door suddenly burst open, so hard that the doorknob actually blew off in a spray of wooden splinters before slamming against the wall.
And there was Tim.
My body turned to stone. Cold, clean fear cut into me just at the sight of him. Not a sinister, slithering fear, as what I felt when I’d seen Nate’s hand and the blood on the floor. This was far more potent. All-encompassing. Horror that can steal sanity in one swift, fatal blow.
Trav emptied three shots into his once-brother. That pop-pop-popping from the gun’s reports managed to bring me back a little, granting some kind of control. But by then Tim — or it — already had its dagger-clawed fingers wrapped tight around Trav’s neck, pressed hard up against the wall with arms that stretched out, long as fishing poles. Trav’s face was cherry-red, eyes bulging, veins showing and everything. His mouth was just a dark O from where a purple tongue protruded.
Of course I held up that rosary.
And of course it did fuck all.
Just as the bullets had done absolutely fuck all.
Then that creature of living terror craned its head down to meet Trav’s, and when it started doing what it did, a complete sense of doom came, dominating and evil, accompanied by red, morbid madness.
Trav only managed to gurgle out one word before the life faded from his eyes: “Run!”
It took no more than six seconds, and I was down those stairs, out the door, in the rain.
Trav’s final word was echoing in my head as I went hell for leather, running across the street, through yards, beyond parking lots. I had run right past the Ram, you see; the keys had been in Trav’s pocket. I remember hearing Nate screaming at me, positively shrieking, but I just ran. I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t care. I completely forgot that I had my phone on me, too. It didn’t matter, though. A lot of things didn’t seem to matter much in those moments, such as catching my breath, or minding traffic.
As I bounded along I found Trav’s last word ringing in my ears like a charnel bell, melding insanely into the chorus of that Pink Floyd song, looping over and over in the darkest, most primal places of my consciousness … over … and over … and over …
“… Run … Run … Run … Run … You’d better run all day … And run all night …”
That certainly didn’t do well for sanity, because what I had seen in that minute or so at the top of that staircase had already let loose the moorings of my mind.
That thing had been like Nate said. Standing upon hind paws. Digits like the talons of a vulture. Some kind of tall, lanky cacodemon that, yes, vaguely looked like it might have once been Tim. But its eyes were flat and amber with no soul. It wore an endless panther’s yawn on its face, raptor fangs indeed. Its tongue, a long and wet thing, had literally unrolled from out of its mucousy mouth.
But none of that was actually the worst. No — the worst was seeing Trav’s face when that thing’s long neck bent and its head lowered, when its serpent’s teeth dug into his flesh. Watching the colour leave his cheeks. Watching his eyes, once bulging and veiny and full of a desperate survival, go cream-white and sink into the back of his sockets. Watching the skin on his face shrivel up and cling to his skull. And the sound. That sound.
It was slurping.
They started asking me questions right off, the cops. They had found me lying in the middle of Ontario Street, out of breath, nearly catatonic. I found that I couldn’t say much when I got here, other than the address of that house and pleading for a cell to lock me in.
A squad went out. I refused to go with them. When they came back they said they sure found some things. Blood. Dead rats. A man and a young girl who’d been drained dry. What they did not find was Tim. Nor has anyone heard from Nate.
They all gave me hard looks when they came back. What could I say? It was worse than insane.
So they’ve kept me in this cell for a few days, waiting for their little story, and here I’ve typed it. Things seem a little clearer, now. They almost had me believing that I did all that horrible stuff myself.
I don’t blame them. It’s just their feeble attempts at grappling with something impossible. They need a confession, something tangible, something they can explain. But there are things in the dark and freaky world, after all, that just can’t be fully quantified. There are things that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t affect. Not you, not the ones you love, perhaps not even God.
There’s a window in here. I can see the full-moon in the sky, gazing down at me like a delirious eye. Did you know that when the moon is out, the beasties that bite — wolves, for instance — are more active hunters? Cats, too.
I’ve heard some noises out there.
Okay. My fingers feel bruised at the tips from typing. That’s all I can tell you. Because that’s all that happened. I know it happened, because I was there. And now you know, because I’ve told you.
Before I go: you may have occasion to go up north yourself one of these days. Wonderful country. You may even want to visit Stratford. Hell of a quaint place. But my recommendation to you is to spend your evenings someplace where there’s lots of light and damn good locks. Oh, and no matter where you find yourself, don’t go near the bad parts of town, the parts that seem a little greyer.
Especially if it’s night.
There are fiends out there, looking for their next fix.