There were five guys standing around aside from John, though Tyler was the only one I knew. They had come in two tall delivery trucks with ANDERSON ROOF AND GUTTER painted on the side. I glanced at the strangers and said to John, “We, uh, had to leave the house. Shouldn’t you all be working?”
John said, “We had to get a load of shit from Home Depot. We’ve been fucking around for two hours. Passed by here and saw your truck. What happened at the house?”
Amy came around then, arms wrapped around that huge parka of hers and immediately pressed herself up against me.
“Hi, John. Ugh, I’m freezing.”
She reached back and pulled my arm around her, saying, “Warm me up.”
“Uh, I’ve got to have a word with John.” I grabbed her by the shoulders and sort of sat her aside, then motioned to John to follow me across the parking lot. We walked around the edge of the lot, me squinting as my eyes adjusted to the light. John said, “You look like shit.”
“I’m burning out, John. Seriously. I don’t know if I’m up for this. I feel stretched out, like too little butter scraped over too much waffle. And then it all falls down into one of the waffle holes and there’s none left for the rest of the waffle and you sort of have to tilt it to make it run out.”
“They got some serious weird shit going on at the Drain Rooter plant, Dave. Mall, too.”
This was when John told me the somewhat dubious story of his experience at the semi crash site and everything that followed. I saw his story and raised him our experience with the shadow people.
I looked back at my truck, where Amy was sitting sideways in the open door and fishing through her purse. She pulled out a brown pill bottle.
“Well there you go, Dave. It looks like the Drain Rooter plant is making more than drain cleaner. In fact, you could say they’re manufacturing evil.”
“No, we couldn’t say that.”
“I wanna see where that hole goes. I think that monster came out of it.”
“We can’t get into the place, John. There’s three shifts at the plant, working around the clock.”
We completed our circuit of the lot and arrived back where Tyler and one other guy leaned against the truck smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee from steaming insulated mugs.
John said, “There may be another way.”
John told me about the mall, and the ghost door that was there but wasn’t there. “Wanna know what I think? I think all those secret doors lead to the same place. Hell, there may be doors like that all over town. Like Wexler said.”
I nodded resignedly, sighed and said, “Well, we’re not waiting for them to just come get Amy again.”
“Absofuckinglutely. We’ll meet at noon.”
“What happens at noon?”
“We’re done with the roof job. They just want us to brace it for now and cover it. Keep the snow out.”
“You’re still going to fix their roof?”
“They paid Steve in advance. Plus, I really need the money.”
I noticed ghosts of exhaust rising from my Bronco; Amy had turned it on to get warm.
I said, “I don’t know what to do with her. That house of hers is eighteen different kinds of screwed.” I glanced at Tyler, saw he was listening intently, and lowered my voice. “She’s got people watching her through the TV, like me.”
Amy saw us and emerged from the truck at that moment, a twenty- four-ounce bottle of red Mountain Dew in her hand.
She came up and said, “Can I have this?”
“You keep that red shit in your truck now?” John asked me. “I think that’s one of the twelve warning signs, isn’t it?”
“I eat all of my meals there at work. If you eat in your car, nobody tries to talk to you.”
John looked at me with something like pity. I said, “It’s yours, Amy.”
She twisted at the cap, shoulders hunched against the cold. Somebody handed John a cup of coffee. John said, “Break time.”
“Shit yeah,” said Tyler, in his dickish way. He was wearing wraparound shades. He watched Amy as she tried to open the Mountain Dew bottle one- handed, trying to keep it still with her elbow. She concentrated on the task, grunting, the wet bottle sort of spinning in place.
I asked John, “Where’s the safest place to keep her while we do this?”
Amy said, “While you do what? Can I come?”
Tyler reacted to this for some reason, looking at John with a “when are people gonna learn” look, and then he spat on the ground. Tobacco spitting is a kind of nonverbal communication in many parts of the Midwest. He must have spilled his coffee a lot as a kid because he had one of those big spill- proof mugs, the kind that flare way out at the bottom. It looked like he was speaking into a megaphone every time he took a drink.
I said, “We’ll talk about it later.”
Amy dropped the bottle, made a frustrated sound like somebody stepping on a cat. I reached out as if to help her and she slapped at my hand, then went back to twisting at the cap.
I continued, “She can’t go back to that house. I don’t know if she has any money but we can work something out. She can sleep on my couch if it comes to that.”
John eyed me as if to say, “really?” but didn’t say anything.
Tyler got a sly look in his eyes and said, “I got an interestin’ story. My brother, he and his wife gave birth to a Down’s kid. He drools all over the place, he shits himself. They made my ma babysit a few times, and then some more times, and then it was every night. Every damned night. You know what happened then?”
“Your brain fell out?” I noticed Amy had stopped messing with the bottle and was sort of just looking at it, frozen. I said, “Look, I gotta—”
“Listen, man. Listen. They left the kid there. At Ma’s house. They come by to visit every now and then. My ma, she’s basically got stuck feedin’ and cleanin’ this thing now, every day, it’s her job. Full- time job. She can’t go to her bingo games or date or any of that shit because she’s got this thing to take care of, because she wanted to be a nice person. It’s like bein’ in prison.”
Amy glared at him, like she really had something killer to say to him, then she got this look on her face, sour, like biting an apple and seeing half a worm. She spun and took two steps toward my truck, then put her hand over her mouth and leaned over.
Tip: if you ever feel a puke coming on, do not, do not put your hand over your mouth to try to catch it. It’s reflex but it doesn’t work at all. Vomit kind of sprays everywhere. So Amy stood there in the snow, leaning over at the waist, her eyes clamped shut, her hand dripping, a puddle at her feet. It was an awkward moment. There were some comments from the crowd behind me. Somebody muttered something and somebody else chuckled.
I walked to her and said, “Over here.” I guided Amy toward the truck and sat her in the open door.
I ran back to the rear door of the Bronco, opened it, reached in and grabbed a red- and- white flip- top cooler. This is my emergency kit. It contained a roll of duct tape, a spare pair of pants, an envelope with two hundred dollars, two bags of dried fruit, two packages of beef jerky, three bottles of water, a roll of those thick shop towels you see mechanics use, a small metal pipe—just right for cracking a skull with—and a fake beard. Look, you never know.
I pulled out a bottle of water and soaked a shop towel. I went to hand it to Amy, realized stupidly that she had no hand to take the towel with since she only had, you know, the puke hand and the nonexistent hand.
“Here,” I said. I took her arm by the wrist and wiped vomit from her fingers. Amy wrinkled her nose in disgust at this, but to be honest I had never attended a party of John’s where someone didn’t either vomit on me or near me. I was kind of inured to it.
As I worked I said, “When I was in seventh grade, I took Emily Parks to the Fall Festival. First time I had ever been anywhere with a girl. We wandered around and ate elephant ears and saltwater taffy and lemon shakeups, all of that festival stuff. We get on the Ferris wheel, and riiiiiight as the ride is about to end I lean over and puke in her lap. The ride slows to a stop, you know, so they can unload all of the riders. And we wind up at the very top. Waiting. She’s sitting up there, with a lap full of vomit, crying. And we’re up there for- ev- er.”
Amy’s hand seemed pretty clean. I tossed the soiled rag in the snow and gave her a new one and the bottle of water. I stepped back and said, “I didn’t ask another girl out until I was a junior in high school. Seventeen years old before I even held a girl’s hand. All because somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew I would wind up puking on her.”
Amy didn’t react. She drank some water and wiped splatters of vomit off her pants and her shoes, her fingers having to be frozen now doing wet work in this weather. I caught a glimpse of her face and saw that look, a familiar look, a sort of embarrassment that is almost numbing. Like she wanted to dig a hole, bury herself in it and let grass grow over the top.
A warmth spread behind my eyes. Everything turned red in my brain, my skull suddenly filled with Tabasco sauce. There was a tingling in my gut, muscles tensing. I picked up the used towels and walked back toward a trash can in the parking lot, near where Tyler and the guys were standing. I tossed in the towels and Tyler leaned over, whispering, “You’re a nice guy, Dave. So all I’m sayin’ is watch, that’s all I’m sayin’. Watch out bein’ a nice guy because you can get fucked.”
A blink. A searing pain in my hand. Blood.
There were arms on me, grabbing my jacket, pulling me, and there was blood on my knuckles and blood in my mouth. My jaws were clenched, I had bitten my tongue and tasted warm copper. Tyler was on his hands and knees, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, grunting that they had better hold me back because I was a fucking psycho and that I had broken his fucking nose. Then John was there, in my face, saying okay, okay, back off, just go, get outta here. I looked down at my throbbing hands and saw the knuckles were split, like I had been punching concrete. John pushed me back from the group, looked over my shoulder and said, “Get him outta here.”