WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ
 “You want to hear a story? Well, buckle the fuck up.”

 

 


Prologue

It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck. The three of us ripped through the downpour in a beige 1996 Saturn Coupe, me at the wheel.

I squinted drunkenly into the rearview mirror and tried in vain to find the headlights of the black truck that was chasing us, but I actually wasn’t sure if its drivers needed headlights to see or if they even had eyes. I also wasn’t sure it was a truck, or if it was black, or if we were being pursued at all. It was definitely raining, though.

My friend John was in the passenger seat and the only reason he wasn’t driving was because, in addition to also being drunk, he was wounded—both of his hands were wrapped in the T-shirt he’d torn off to use as gauze. His wounds had not been inflicted by our pursuers, at least not directly—he had burned himself grabbing a fondue pot full of melted chocolate that we had been dipping fried chicken strips into (try it sometime, seriously). My girlfriend, Amy, was in the back seat. She wasn’t driving because she didn’t know how, but she apparently did have enough expertise to judge my performance, screaming warnings at me to keep my eyes on the road and to watch out for that curve and oh god we’re all gonna die.

In Amy’s right hand—her only hand—was a little gray metal container about the size of a shot glass. That container was what the occupants of the truck were after, and I had known this the moment they had burst into John’s living room ten minutes ago.

We had just been minding our own business, eating our chocolate chicken and making our way through a theme movie night (we’d picked out four films in which the ending is probably the main character’s dying hallucination: Taxi Driver, Minority Report, The Shawshank Redemption, and Mrs. Doubtfire). In through the front door came this whirlwind of a half-dozen men(?) in black cloaks, all wearing what looked like rubber Halloween masks—drooping, expressionless faces with lifeless, skewed eyeballs. The lead cloak was wearing the mask of a puffy-cheeked infant and brandished a weapon that looked like a huge, electrified Toblerone bar—a series of black pyramids in a row, fed by cables that ran inside his robe. John’s little Yorkshire terrier was yapping its head off, probably asking the intruders to take him away to a better home.

The “man” with the Toblerone gun had screamed, “WHERE IS IT?” in a voice like a spider that had learned to imitate human speech via some online courses it had taken. We hadn’t had to ask what “it” was. John’s house is my favorite place in the world, but there’s nothing else in there you couldn’t replace with a trip to Target or a garage sale held at a meth dealer’s house. No, they had come for that little brushed steel vial Amy now held in her hand.

They weren’t getting it.

So, John had grabbed the fondue pot and slung the molten contents at the thing with the spidery voice, inflicting hot brown splash damage on everyone in the room. Amy grabbed the vial from its hiding place (sitting in plain view on John’s kitchen counter, next to a novelty bong shaped like a triathlon trophy) and we sprinted out the back door into a raging thunderstorm. We piled into my car, I floored it, and that’s where we are now.

The rain was blasting directly into the windshield, the drops whipping toward me like hyperdrive stars. Visibility was slightly worse than what you get inside a car wash after they spray on that multicolored foam. Amy was yelling turn-by-turn directions at me and I was obeying, even though none of us had discussed where we were going. She ordered me to stop just as we arrived at a rusty bridge suspended over a roiling, swollen river. She threw open the rear door, sprinted out into the storm, and chucked the vial downstream as hard as she could. The angry, rumbling current swallowed it without so much as a plop.

John and I ran up to the rail and exchanged frantic “Did that really just happen?” glances. None of us spoke. A decision had been made and could not be taken back.

Amy had been right, of course, to do what she did. Goal Number 1 was to keep the vial out of the hands of the cloaked things that were chasing us and Goal Number 2 was to make sure they knew we no longer had it, otherwise they’d just strap us to chairs and try to torture its location out of us using some unspeakable method involving black magic and power tools.

John said, “When they get here, let me do all the talking.”

I said, “Amy, when they get here, I want you to do all of the talking. I’ll be busy restraining John.”

Our pursuers, however, never arrived. I don’t know how long we waited, leaning on the railing, watching the frothing current twisting and breaking below. Cold rain howled into our ears. John absently licked chocolate off his fingers. Amy shivered, her red hair matted against her skull so that it looked like she was bleeding profusely from the scalp. Maybe they knew we had chucked the vial, maybe they had never followed us at all. You’re probably wondering who “they” are and who they work for and those are both great questions. We climbed back into the car.

John tied his wet hair into a ponytail, lit a cigarette, and said, “I fucking knew something like this was about to happen.”

Amy tried in vain to dry her glasses with her wet shirt and said, “Well, thanks for letting us know.”

I said, “If they dredge the river, they can find it.”

“It floats,” replied Amy. “Did you see that current? River flows into the Ohio, that flows into the Mississippi, that drains into the Gulf of Mexico. They’ll never find it, unless . . .”

She trailed off but we all knew what she had left unsaid: they would never find the vial, unless the contents wanted to be found.

No ambush was waiting for us back at John’s place. The strange men-like shapes in their dark robes and Halloween masks were nowhere to be found, on that or any of the following nights. We had spent the rest of the evening dealing with the dog, as we had come back and found it lapping up the chocolate on the carpet. It turns out chocolate is toxic to dogs; it started puking everywhere and we had to rush it to the vet.

Or, that’s how I remember it, anyway.

Chapter 1: A Child Got Kidnapped by a Demon or Something

ME

I woke up on the floor of my junk room, a tiny second bedroom in my apartment that’s piled high with the weird bullshit I collect. Though I guess that wording would imply that I seek this stuff out; I actually meant “collect” in the way that dead bugs “collect” on your windshield. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was four ventriloquist dummies, where they had been propped up around my face so that I’d find them staring down at me when I woke. I thought the things were creepy as hell, and Amy knew that, which is why she had put them there. She is a monster.

I sat up on my elbows, feeling like a rat had chewed its way into one of my eye sockets and then clawed its way out the other. I squinted and saw that stuck to one of the dummies was a Post-it Note that read:

You were sleepwalking again!
I went back to work
Muffin on the table
Love you
—Amy

At the bottom she had drawn a picture of a muffin, little scribbled dots to indicate blueberries. The dots were actually blue—she had gone and found a different pen to do that part.

It was still dark out, I could sense it even though the one window in the room was mostly obscured by a large painting that was leaning against it. It was a painting of a clown that the previous owner had insisted was cursed (that is, the painting was cursed, not the clown, unless he was, which is entirely possible). “Cursed” turned out to be a ridiculous exaggeration, though. What was happening was the painted clown’s mouth was slowly changing shape with time, as if it was silently mouthing words. I don’t doubt that if you set the painting in front of a time-lapse camera for a few months and hired a lip reader to examine the results, it would turn out the clown was saying something very creepy or even profound. Maybe it’s a prophecy. And, if you want to pay to do all that shit, be my guest. But as far as I’m concerned, if the object isn’t killing anybody, it isn’t “cursed.” I’ve had it in the junk room for four months and it hasn’t inconvenienced me once.

My cell phone was ringing from somewhere nearby, which I assumed was what had woken me. I knew that at this hour, it wasn’t somebody calling to tell me they’d accepted my job application, so it was either:

A) a drunken misdial from somebody, in which case I would dedicate my life to finding that person and murdering them;

B) an emergency;

C) an “emergency,” and those right there are sarcasm quotes.

If it was Amy, then it was a good chance it was “B”—an actual emergency. If it was John, well, it could be any of the three.