It looked like a yard sale of all the stuff of an adolescent geek’s inner life. Nick Belmer scanned the cluttered lawn in disbelief. Here were piles of Fangoria, Starlog, Gorezone, The Dark Side, Rue Morgue, HorrorHound, and Videoscope. Among these were copies of the defunct Deep Red and even obscurer fanzines like Blood Cinema, Vile Video, and Eurosleaze. Here were dusty VHS tapes and DVDs of Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, Stuart Gordon, and Dario Argento films, movie posters, and t-shirts with the mugs of Jason, Leatherface, Freddy, Chucky, Michael Myers, and Jack Torrance in The Shining. “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” Amid the horror kitsch lay a jumble of used things: ancient lamps with cracked stained-glass hoods, grimy mirrors, chipped and scarred trunks and dressers and desks and stools and other junk to give your dwelling a bohemian, Sanford and Son vibe.
At the other end of the lawn, sitting in a folding chair before his squat trailer-like home, was Carl Paulsen. Nick’s first thought was that Carl couldn’t really have outgrown the kitsch he was getting rid of. Surely Carl had no more urge to do that than to get a real job and move out of the grubby part of town where he’d lived since their graduation from college. Maybe Carl’s finances had gone off a cliff. But Carl lived simply and had no debts that Nick knew of.
Nick began to make his way through the junk toward the front of the yard. When he was halfway there, a teen and the teen’s dad approached Carl and began to haggle over a Lifeforce poster. This made Nick chuckle. Maybe the father hadn’t seen the film and didn’t know that Mathilda May walks around nude for a good part of it.
He waited patiently until the boy and father walked off with the poster. Then Carl got up and went into the decrepit house without a word. Nick wondered who’d watch all the junk. Then he spotted Aubrey Hawkes, a neighbor who was rarely sober, lolling in a chair by the property’s edge. Aubrey gave a charmless grin. Nick stood there until he got tired of waiting and went on with his day.
After work, he entered a bar near an overpass where you could hear trucks rumbling by during the pauses between numbers on the old juke. The bar was in a part of town that had been gentrifying for some years now. Amid the students and yuppies were guys from the factories, construction sites, and auto body shops unwinding after their shifts.
Nick took a seat at the bar and ordered his first drink of the evening. Then a woman around his age took a seat two stools over to his left. From the way she and the bartender talked, he gathered she was a regular. Though she was what people call conventionally pretty, her eyes had a strange dull look and in her demeanor Nick sensed something closer to giddiness than bright good humor. Still, he felt mildly charmed when she turned with a smile and said, “Evening, sir, how’s your week going?”
“As good as it’ll ever get.”
“D’you like living here?”
“It’s hard to find anything nice to say about the nabe, but this place is fun sometimes.”
They chatted about the bar and the neighborhood and then the talk meandered and Nick mentioned the yard sale he’d stopped by earlier.
“What was so strange about it?
“Ah, well, my friend Carl. I can’t imagine why he’d feel the need to get rid of all that stuff. He’s always loved his horror crap. Plus, he must’ve seen me, but he vanished abruptly like I was a stranger.”
She considered this.
“Yes, how’d you guess?”
“He wanders in here from time to time. When did you last speak to your friend?”
“A few weeks ago, I think.”
“Maybe he’s had a rough few weeks. Got in a wreck and lost his memory, and his insurance won’t pay so he doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. God knows I’ve known some people, right here in this fucked-up town. Or maybe you said something that pissed him off.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Carl’s always been a little unhinged.”
“Mentally unbalanced. Emotionally volatile. There’ve been some incidents in public that I’d rather not tell you about.”
She looked intrigued.
“Yet he’s still your friend. What’s wrong with the guy?”
Nick took quick looks around the bar, then turned back to her.
“We finished college seven years ago, and like a lot of kids, he went out into the world full of idealism and hope. I guess you could say the theater of his idealism was bigger than mine. In spite of warnings, he went off to Cambodia to work for the U.N. as an election observer.”
“Oh yes. The jungles over there were still crawling with Khmer Rouge guerrillas, psychotic ex-soldiers, mercenaries, and plain old criminals. It was no place for a cream-puff kid. So, he goes out there and becomes real good friends with this interpreter, Ryutaro Noda, and they drive around on the dirt roads from village to village. They often drive in a convoy, but it makes no real difference. Then, after four weeks in-country, they’re out on a remote road and a bunch of real scary bastards with AK-47s jump out of the bush and start blasting away. The interpreter gets a bullet in the head and dies instantly. Carl screams and jumps out of the car and runs like fuck, excuse me, off into the jungle. He makes it back to Phnom Penh but he’s so traumatized he needs help for years. The guy’s just never been right up here since then,” Nick said, tapping his right temple.
“Who would be?”
“Yes, fair point. But even his erratic mental health doesn’t explain why he’d up and decide to sell all his stuff.”
The pause before she answered unnerved him.
“Well now, college boy, you’re the one who doesn’t see what’s in front of him.”
“You weren’t paying attention. You think the world needs to explain itself to you, and if there was more to see, then you’d sure as hell see it.”
The smile, the superficial charm, were gone now.
“I have no idea—”
“I stopped by the same place. And here’s what I know, but you don’t, about your friend. He wasn’t sellin’ all his stuff, honey. He was givin’ it away.”
Now she grinned giddily, making the revulsion he’d begun to feel soar. He wanted to hit her. As if to preempt any such action, a sturdy young man in a flannel shirt and jeans moved up to the bar and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder, flashing a grin that eclipsed hers in its sheer brutishness as he posed a question.
“Hey, are you Nick?”
“We’ve seen you here a few times,” the guy said.
“My buddies and I. And sometimes Sue here. We’ve seen you here with a book and wondered why you were all alone reading. Figured you were bored or your girlfriend dumped you.”
Nick nodded again.
“Oh, sure, I get it. Why else would a person ever read?”
The two strangers laughed in his face.
“Morons,” he said under his breath as he left the bar.
To hell with the bar and the crummy neighborhood, Nick thought as he made his way toward a wine bar in an area where gentrification had been less fitful. He spent a couple of relaxing hours in the wine bar, as a blonde clad all in black moved up and down the aisle between his table and the bar, serving him glass after glass of perfectly chilled white wine, sending him coy looks, now and then placing a palm with infinite gentleness above his right knee. The mellow jazz played, the attractive young people chatted, and he got drunker until his fear of humiliating himself called out, like a voice from a far room. His car felt old and tired as ever. The roads were dark and empty and slick with drizzle.
A short while later he lurched through the door of his apartment. Just as he was about to hit a new low and crack open a beer and catch the tail end of a Friends episode, he thought of Carl Paulsen, his college pal. He wondered whether Carl was still up.
Gazing out the window at a few solitary lights in far-off apartments, he had the odd sense that the lights returned his gaze. The rain was picking up. Moronic laughter came from the TV screen at a line from Joey or Ross or Chandler, one of those morons he could never keep straight.
He picked up the phone and dialed. A familiar voice answered, clearly enough, even if the words were hazy at the edges.
“Now who’s calling me this late?”
“Carl. It’s Nick Belmer. How are you, man?”
“Belmer. One of the least useful people in the world is calling me.”
“Are you drunk, man?”
“I don’t know where you were when I needed you in church the other day.”
“My jacket was at the cleaner. Tell me what happened in church.”
The pause now seemed loaded with contempt.
“Father Gilbert appeared to be giving a perfectly honest talk about moral responsibility, about how we assign and apportion blame among two individuals when it’s not self-evident which of them should play what role. Society has all kinds of expectations, of course, but we ask things of ourselves, at least those of us who aren’t psychotic. As I was listening, I got the sense that Father Gilbert was lifting his eyes more than usual, he was looking at one member of the congregation. One person.”
Nick hadn’t guessed his friend would be this wasted.
“What kind of paranoid bullshit. Is that all?”
“No. But I was talking about moral accountability.”
“You’re hammered. This is really a discussion for another time. It’s not what I called you about.”
“So you have something of infinitely greater importance to discuss. Go ahead, then.”
“I’m not trying to be rude or give short shrift to your spiritual crisis. I just got concerned when I passed by your yard and saw all the stuff you were giving away. Not selling. Giving away. Like you’ve given up on life, Carl.”
“Is that what you say to everyone who puts on a yard sale?”
“I heard it wasn’t a yard sale.”
“From a very reliable source, no doubt.”
“Fine, it was a yard sale. Tell me what you took for that Lifeforce poster.”
“About what it’s worth to a teenaged boy.”
“That’s no answer.”
“I haven’t given up on life, as you so crudely put it, Nick, but there will be a general rising soon. The men with no face are out there now, picking off the random drunk and hitchhiker and whore, anyone dumb enough to be out alone in a desolate place. You really might want to skip town.”
“I can’t stay on the phone, Nick. I’m getting on a call with Ryutaro,” Carl said.
Ryutaro. The interpreter who’d died just inches away from Carl on a remote road.
“Look, I know you’re wasted. But is everything all right, Carl?”
“Nothing’s been all right since a butterfly flew into my living room the other day.”
“Carl, I’ve warned you many times about your drinking. Your rep’s bad enough in this town. People have been so patient and tried so many times and you’ve stolen from the very folk who were kind enough to give you work. Now you’re talking nonsense to almost the only guy who’s held out hope for you.”
“But of course as everyone knows the source of the trouble lies considerably further back in time, in a garden. Just like where we came under attack. A big garden. But that’s a poor point of reference because the tradition that flows from it is useless to redeem any of us.”
“Carl, I really have warned you.”
“I knew the time had come for a big yard sale. Just lay all my stuff out there and see who picks up what.”
It was like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, where topics resurface pages later without warning.
In the morning, Nick realized in the middle of shaving that he still needed to call his ex-girlfriend Sheryl and apologize for the abrupt way he’d broken up with her and for his poor choice of words on their last evening. Knowing he felt the need to do this thing didn’t come close to redeeming him, it was really a crutch for a man hit hard with guilt. He’d do it today, he decided. But first he thought he must call the police, a social worker, a neighbor, someone, about Carl. It had to be a pro who could do a proper wellness check.
After a bit of reflection, he called the precinct’s non-emergency number and relayed his concern about his friend, who was giving away his things and talking nonsense. The dispatcher gave vague assurances.
In the early evening, he was back at the wine bar, where to his surprise he encountered his friend Dan Strahan and Dan’s girlfriend, Angela Hayes. Dan wasn’t in the same social orbit as Nick’s other friends. He was an Army vet, gun collector, and regular at local shooting ranges. To say that someone got his worldview from Fox News was a slur that some progressives put to use in arguments, but in Dan’s case, it might be true. For all that, Dan was a boisterous and generous young man and Nick liked him though there had been one troubling incident. Two years before, Dan had fatally shot an unarmed trespasser in his home. It turned out the putative burglar was a distraught former co-worker, Eddie Gray, who’d once left menacing voice messages accusing Dan of making advances toward his sister, a server at a local tavern. The allegations hadn’t stuck. Nick and others had done a pretty good job of convincing themselves that Dan Strahan favored serious relationships, like the one he was now in with Angela, rather than flings with bar girls. It wasn’t easy to get to the truth of the matter because, not long after her brother’s death, Melissa Gray went to a shooting range on the outskirts of town, rented a pistol, and shot herself, leaving behind a note asking that they bury her next to Eddie.
Nick carried a glass of wine to the table and sat down facing his two friends. How the vibes, the ambiance here contrasted with the atmosphere in that bar near the overpass.
“How’s Sheryl?” Angela asked.
“You haven’t heard? We’re not together anymore.”
“All you all right there, Nick?” Dan said.
Nick rehashed his experiences with Carl Paulsen.
“No one wants to go meet that guy right now. He’s radioactive,” Angela said.
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, there was this rather notorious incident in church.”
“Of which I know only the outlines.”
“I find that hard to believe, Nick, unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past week.”
“I haven’t been living in a cave, though there’s someone I’ve been trying pretty hard to avoid.”
“I get it, Nick. I’ll spare you the snark. So, the church is packed, and Father Gilbert is going on in a particularly sanctimonious voice about moral responsibility and facing up to what you’ve done, and at this point in the sermon I clutch Dan’s hand especially hard because I know there are still questions in people’s minds.”
Nick sipped his wine, listening to Angela with morbid fascination. She went on.
“So, the father’s up there ranting, he’s even more stentorian than usual, and soon he gets to a point in the sermon where it’s time for a pointed line from Mark 7:20 or thereabouts, and that stern voice rises, talking about how what comes out of a person is what defines him, the thoughts and acts of a person, more than any external deeds or influences, they define that person’s worth in the eyes of the Creator, and all the lies you’ve told and thefts you’ve committed and pain you’ve inflicted on others come back with far greater immediacy than an outspoken letter to the editor or a fine karaoke performance or a perfect score at the shooting range or anything else that fills you with enough self-love to get from day to day.”
Nick’s eyes flitted to Dan, who looked as astonished as Nick felt. She went on.
“So at this point in the sermon, I’m gripping Dan’s hand just as hard as I can, but I’m also looking around the church, and I can’t help noticing that heads are turning, not toward my handsome boyfriend here, but toward another member of the congregation. The father, quoting Mark, intones, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ And I’m listening but I’m also looking around, and heads are turning to a point near the entrance. It’s not my imagination. Yes, one by one, they’re turning. Mrs. Seton. Mrs. Manson. The O’Keefes. The Johnsons. The Dunleavys. The Cassidys. Alfie Northam. Don Vickers. Paula McVey. Ninety-three-year-old Emily Gardner. All those heads turn, one by one, to peer at the pale nervous young man in the third row. Carl Paulsen sees what I see, but I guess he suspects far, far more. He has an idea of what’s going on in all those heads. I can see the guy sweat by this point. He makes it another twelve seconds before he gets up and bolts right out the door. The reverend pauses briefly, then goes on with the most sanctimonious sermon ever delivered.”
Nick sat there, absorbing all this, knowing he’d had no grasp of what was going on in his friend’s life during that bizarre phone call. The things revealed to him now didn’t dampen his ardor to explore other corners of Carl’s past.
He guessed that the fact of Carl having bolted had some significance he’d missed.
“What happened back in Cambodia must’ve really scarred the guy, to the point that stress makes him have, you know, flashbacks.”
Even as he spoke these words, he felt the inanity of the comment. Besides, that wasn’t the question on his mind.
“I wonder whether Carl couldn’t have done more during that incident. Driven himself and the Jap guy right out of the attack zone,” Dan said, as if on cue.
“Excellent question. I’ve gotten nowhere trying to learn more about the incident. No faster way to shut the guy up,” Nick replied.
“A butterfly flew through my window this morning as I was making coffee,” Angela said.
Nick turned to her, dumfounded.
“Maybe you need to pursue the topic more aggressively with our friend Carl,” Dan said, as if he hadn’t heard what his girlfriend just disclosed.
“What did you say?” Nick asked, staring at Angela.
“I said, a butterfly—”
“No, I heard you.”
“Then why’d you ask me to repeat myself?”
“I was expressing my disbelief. Carl Paulsen told me the same thing.”
“He made coffee this morning. Glad to hear there’s something the guy can do.”
“No, that isn’t what I meant.”
“You seem to have this terrible timidity about speaking your mind. Call our buddy. Put it to him. What happened out there, Carl? Did you choose not to floor it because you wanted your Jap buddy dead? Maybe he was everything you ever dreamed of being, an idealist who went to work for the U.N. to get things done and not to strike a pose and foster the impression of having some kind of social conscience when in fact you are unworthy and no one knows it better than you.”
Nick clutched his glass so hard he realized it might break. At last Dan appeared to pick up on his turmoil.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you wanted to know about the butterfly.”
“That’s right. The butterfly. I’m not stupid. Tell me what pact you and Carl made to try to mess with my mind.”
The other two at the table exchanged looks. Angela seemed to want to know why her boyfriend was pals with this guy. Just as Dan was about to say something, a really loud slam at the front of the place jolted everybody. Someone had flung the door open hard.
A woman in a beige trench coat staggered in, sobbing, her lips moving spastically but failing to form words. In Nick’s mind, memories came of a shelter for battered spouses where he’d briefly volunteered. People got up and ran to the woman.
“What happened, miss? Is someone out there?”
“Did he attack you?”
“Are you okay, ma’am?”
“You’re safe here. Sit down. Someone call 911!”
Nick moved over to the cluster of people and got a good look at the distraught stranger. A third of her button-down shirt was tucked into her pants and the rest hung every which way under the coat. One of her shoes was missing and a big swath of her flesh below the right knee was bare. Nick wondered what beast could have made the tear he gazed at now.
“This man came toward me, and I thought he wanted directions or something!” she cried.
“It’s okay, you’re safe here, the cops are on the way,” someone said.
“I’m not safe here!”
“You’re safe, the police are coming.”
“Listen, all of you. This man came up to me, and he had this big hat and this waistcoat on, and it took me a moment to see that he had no face!”
“She’s stoned out of her mind. Keep her in the corner until the cops arrive, and don’t say another word to her.”
“Nothing’s been right since the butterfly flew through my window!” she cried.
Dan and three other men rushed out of the place. After a moment, Nick followed. The streets were bare. They moved up and down, peering into alleys and under cars and porches in vain until the flashing lights arrived.
Slumped on a couch in his apartment, gazing through an open window at branches swaying in the heavy gusts, Nick reached for the phone and called Carl again. The voice that answered was hard to understand. Carl could barely form sentences. Nick tried to recall how many times his friend had given up drink. The trauma in the wine bar, and the futile search that ensued, were too fresh in Nick’s mind for him to think too clearly. But he recalled what Carl had said about a general rising.
For the better part of an hour, Carl spoke in a free-floating, nonlinear manner. It was often unclear what he was trying to say or why he stressed some details and not others.
“In the jungle the birds are so damn loud, birds all around, hear them cry, watch their flurries of flight so far up there where the sun peers through, they are taunting you, oh yes, don’t dream for a second that they are neutral about your presence here, you’ll hear them wherever in the day you set foot, and as you walk over the sticks and twigs over which so many bare feet have trod you’ll see bare feet, smoldering stumps. The village men dragged off the corpses of kids who trod where they shouldn’t but sometimes the bodies weren’t anywhere near the feet. So they missed the feet. They had enough work. The bodies, Nick. Black and smoking with grins like even death couldn’t erase the mischief and now the spirits will be after you forever. Listen as you navigate the tall trees. What just scraped your shoulder, Nick? Someone’s up there in the trees, throwing rocks at you, yes, crane your neck and take a look, who is it? Who is it?”
That was as coherent as Carl got. The rest of what he divulged was a mess of visual data and unrelated facts. They got off and Nick went to bed and it was up to Nick’s unconscious mind to take the pieces and make them into something linear. Through the strange alchemy of the dream state, his mind did a fairly creditable job. The things he knew, the pieces of what Carl had done and seen on the other side of the world, at last began to come together.
Nick still didn’t know everything, far from it, but the images came vividly now. He saw the road snaking out through the lush distances in front of the car, which moved at a wary speed. All around the bush was a live with a cacophony of cries and warbles, and the bits of blue just visible above were a sullen comment on the chaos the West had brought. The two men in the car tried hard to keep up a jaunty, unafraid demeanor as they progressed further and further into this obscure part of the country, but the driver, the American college grad, couldn’t mask the unease he felt, his sense of the perfect incongruity of his presence here. The Japanese man beside him was no more of a warrior. The car moved up the trail in the noisy brutal day and they looked around at the foreign land but for all their anxiety nothing overtly sinister, no grinning face, appeared in the gaps in the trees. The passenger unfurled a map that took up nearly half the space up front and pored over it, relaying bits of data. Nodding, acknowledging this and that, the driver held out hope that if they didn’t do anything dumb, they’d soon reach a place where they could do some work and justify their official status as election observers, as emissaries from countries that did things right.
The car moved on through the hot hostile world as the men inside looked anxiously around. Then the vehicle mounted a modest slope where the passage between the tall trees was tight and passed down into an oval clearing where the grass was of modest height. On the far side stood a hut, not made of rice stalks like so many structures around here but of logs lashed together with thick cords. The men climbed out of the car and approached.
Even in this dream state, Nick heard the call of his own incredulity like yet another voice from a distant room. They couldn’t be walking with even superficial assurance toward the hut of Norodom Samrin, known throughout the land to have been one of the poor souls who took part in a forced march out of Phnom Penh in April 1975 under the supervision of communist soldiers. The Khmer Rouge had expected babies, children, and old people to move with the speed and stamina of young adults, and many people had died from exhaustion or starvation or complications from illnesses and wounds that could only have gotten worse once the communists emptied the hospitals along with offices, universities, restaurants, cafés, and homes and channeled the human masses into a snaking current. To this day, Samrin blamed an imminent U.S. bombing for the forced exodus, ignoring those who argued that the communists had ordered it for ideological reasons and had used the threat from the skies as blackmail.
Carl and Ryutaro moved up to the door of the hut and rapped hard. They waited, their confidence a faint shadow of what it had been when they set out in the bright morning. Finally the door opened and a man with dark cracked skin ushered them inside.
The dream alchemy was strange indeed. Nick now found himself in church, in a building just a few short blocks from where he slept. Father Gilbert had raised and tightened the focus of his stern voice. He spoke directly at a forlorn figure in the third row, a young man who sweated and trembled and seethed but didn’t obviously wish to rebut the charges leveled here today. Carl’s moral failings were legion, but the gist of it all was that he lacked awareness of just how contemptible he was, how sick, how cowardly, how unworthy, and for all the mantras about how Jesus loves you no matter who you are and what you’ve done, the prospect of Carl’s redemption was the vilest delusion. Until this point, Nick had been privy to Carl’s reaction but not to the full thrust of the reverend’s words. Now, even though this was a dream and dreams have their own wholly distinct logic, one you could spend your life in an effort to try to grasp, the world made just a bit more sense to him.
The words came to him again. The general rising is imminent.
On the following evening, he was in the wine bar again, where the blonde who’d lulled him the other night now applied her charms to a middle-aged businessman gorging on an entrée and swilling zinfandel. The man took hostile glances at Nick, who saw just how interchangeable he’d been. Nick drank with abandon, feeling angry and bitter, ignoring the voice from a distant room, wondering as the night wore on whether someone, anyone, would cross the social gulf and engage him in discussion.
At length someone did, but it was one of the last people he expected or hoped to meet tonight. Aubrey Hawkes, the alcoholic neighbor of his old college chum, descended into the chair across from Nick without a word, without trying to affirm that Nick wished to speak with him. It was to happen. Nick peered into the other’s eyes and had little doubt that Aubrey was, as they say, deep in his cups.
“Hey, brother. I saw you the other day on Carl’s property. You looked kind of lost and uncertain but you didn’t wait for your friend to come back outside.”
Nick looked uneasily around the place. The blonde was talking to the businessman.
“Now, I waited patiently for Carl to come back outside. He really might have been a bit more polite to his oldest friend in this fucked-up town.”
“No, that’s me.”
“Okay. Fine. It’s beside the point anyway.”
“Arrive at the point.”
“It’s been clear to me for years now that Carl’s been ill. Depression, bipolar disorder, manic disorder, PTSD, call it what you will. He’s been struggling for years and now everything he’s done his best to banish since that ambush in the jungle has surfaced and overwhelmed him, and to expect him to be rational is asking too much. I do not judge him.”
Aubrey responded with a look of disdain.
“Nick. You act like you’re so world-weary, but you’re more like a child that believes anything people tell it. How much have you really pressed Carl about that incident in Cambodia?”
“I haven’t had to. He’s unloaded his burden, drunk and sober, times without number.”
“No, Nick. You don’t know jack. That night after the supposed ambush, Cambodian army units combed the area and didn’t find one shred of evidence of an ambush. Not one corpse or wrecked vehicle or even a trace of blood or a stray bullet or anything out of the ordinary. And these are professional soldiers who’ve checked out dozens of incidents in the bush. They found nothing at all. What Carl’s told the world is a hoax.”
“You’re saying my friend’s been lying to me all these years about how that interpreter died.”
“To you and everyone else.”
“Then where is Ryutaro Noda? Why hasn’t he come forward?”
“I’d tell you my theory if I thought you were worth it.”
“I’m going to hit you.”
“Do as you will. But you might say a prayer for a young woman who just hanged herself because of your abominable behavior.”
Nick recoiled, in stupefaction, and looked nervously all around the wine bar. People were huddled close together, talking in low tones.
“You didn’t hear about Sheryl?”
“No, I didn’t. If this is some kind of prank—”
Explosions sounded in the far distance, boom boom boom, making almost everyone in the place jump up and cry and run to the windows. From far out there in the night came dozens of wails and screams.
“It’s the terrorists! I knew they were playing dead!”
“Call the police!”
“Call the National Guard!”
“Call the president directly right now!”
“It’s the terrorists!”
“It’s not the terrorists.”
Some patrons cowered at the back of the place, phones pressed to their ears. Others rushed out onto the street, Aubrey and the bartender among them. Nick followed.
The sky over the eastern part of town was a tableau of expanding coronas of orange fury, and the screams rising into the night were like the whines of hurtling souls rent from their bodies. Horns blared, sirens wailed, metal hitting metal made a gathering rhythm. In the space around Nick, people from the wine bar ran off into the dark streets or babbled to each other or sat down weeping with their hands pressed to their ears. Nick thought of the few items of value in his flat. Just as Nick was about to say something to Aubrey, a blue Ford pulled up.
“Get in now!” Dan said.
Nick and Aubrey climbed onto the back seat behind Dan and Angela and the car shot back out into the street, swerving to avoid the terrified men and women. Looking around, Nick barely had the presence of mind to ask the obvious question.
“What in Christ’s name is going on?”
The car raced up the block and spun to the right, nearly mowing down a crazed woman Nick recalled having once seen walking her dog around here in the mild early evening light. Now she wept and pulled at her cheeks with her sharp nails. Within seconds the car passed two more blocks and turned right again, toward the eastern part of town, the locus of fire and death. Nick repeated his question twice before Angela answered.
“Look over there,” she said, pointing to a figure sauntering up the sidewalk outside the penumbra of light from a streetlamp.
“A man out for a walk. Never seen that before.”
“Look at his face, Nick.”
Focusing and intensifying his gaze, Nick realized that the face wasn’t just indistinct in the near-dark. He couldn’t make out any features at all.
“Have you ever had a holiday in Cambodia, Nick?” Dan asked.
“That’s a real, what do you call it, non sequitur,” Nick said.
“I’m totally lost. What in Christ’s name—”
“You’ve been lost for some time,” Angela said.
“Stop talking in riddles, both of you. It’s not funny.”
Dan spoke again.
“I was talking about Cambodia, Nick. Where your oldest friend in this town had an adventure of which you know nothing. You believe what he told you about what happened over there, as if he had no obvious motive, no conceivable motive, to lie.”
“You’re telling me he was in some way responsible for the attack. Or that he could have saved Ryutaro Noda’s life.”
Dan gave a low, caustic, mocking laugh as the car swerved yet again and more faceless specters sauntered down the dark avenues.
“No, Nick. I’m telling you he made up the attack.”
“Oh, you think he fabricated the incident to make himself look good? To save face? Hey, I drove into an ambush that killed my friend and the only son of an old couple!”
Dan laughed again. Nick would have killed him if he could. More explosions sounded in the distance.
“I guess it is an awful enough story to discourage you from asking what he could have really been hiding.”
“Arrive at the point, Dan.”
“Ah, Nick. Poor deluded Nick. Do you know where we’re going? We are arriving at the point.”
“If you keep talking in riddles, I’ll rip your tongue out.”
Once again Dan laughed, long and hard.
“I was talking about Cambodia, Nick. If you’d have been just a little patient, I would’ve already told you about this, I won’t say custom, but fairly widespread tendency for people to toss sulfuric acid into the face of someone they don’t like. Don’t let me get too expository here, but we’re going right now to the home of a sorcerer, a kru, who’s been inverting or channeling outward his memories of the country, and encouraging the mutilated to do his business and give us an idea of the trauma we visited on that faraway land. We’re going to see the kru. You might say, college boy, that we’re arriving at the point.”
Nick looked around in stupefaction at the chaotic dark.
“I thought this was the way to Carl’s place.”
At last Nick had the kind of sweeping epiphany that the postmodernist writer David Foster Wallace relates in his more discursive passages, where all manner of facts and ideas and impressions and associations cohere in a nanosecond into a blinding truth. Carl had been giving away all his junk in anticipation not of suicide, exactly, but of a different form of self-sacrifice, no, that wasn’t quite the term, of submission to another being fully entitled to claim Carl’s corporeal shell. Carl, as others and even and especially Carl himself had always known the man, hadn’t changed in any way, and that was the point. Carl had a debt to the kru, Norodom Samrin, on which he could never make good, and the kru had come to claim Carl’s identity and unleash rough justice on the town and all the louts in it.
“Dan, now that I see this thing as clearly as you do, tell me why you’d think of going there.”
“I’m thinking that if I show up with Carl’s friends and neighbor in tow, we might still reach him, or whatever part of his identity still lurks inside his body. And if not …”
Dan held up a Browning Hi-Power pistol in his right hand.
As the Ford reached the next intersection, they felt the impact of a crash so abrupt and deafening Nick pissed his pants and the car whirled leftward and rose off the pavement. It spun wildly, making two full revolutions, before it stopped, its right-side windows gone. Another vehicle had shot out of the perpendicular lane, in defiance of a stop sign, and plowed into the Ford.
The four in the Ford were dazed but not too hurt to move. They climbed out and began to inspect themselves and each other without a glance at the other car. Within seconds the faceless men set on them. One of them grabbed Angela by the shoulders from behind and she screamed really loud. Another struck Dan in the head with a branch. A trio of them set on Aubrey, toppling him to the pavement, digging with their nails, clawing, raking, pulling.
Dan fired the pistol twice at the shape attacking him, whirled, and fired twice more at the one behind his girlfriend. The shapes fell without a sound. Three more lunged out of the dark and Dan quickly shot them all. Then he fired once more at a point in the dimness Nick couldn’t see.
“Come on, Nick. We’re two blocks from Carl’s,” Dan said.
Nick looked anxiously around.
“There’re more of them out there! Do you want everyone to die? Come on!”
Nick and Angela lurched up the street after Dan. From behind them, a voice called.
“Dan! Nick! Hey! I don’t get it.”
They ignored the voice and kept moving.
“Dan! You fired eight times, you’ve got five rounds left in that Browning Hi Power. Dan, where the hell are you going?”
Still they moved up the street in the intermittent light.
“Dan! You’ve got five shots! Come back here!” Aubrey screamed.
“Ignore him,” Dan said, but Aubrey wasn’t finished.
“You hope to end this thing by convincing Carl you’re not irredeemable. Come back, Dan! Nick! Help me! HELP ME!”
Aubrey’s screams echoed through the streets as the shapes pulled him apart.
They passed two more blocks in the near-dark before Dan had to use the pistol again. Three shapes fell quickly and Nick knew the others shared his relief but also his alarm that the gun was nearly empty. He wondered what the shapes felt as they fell and died and whether you’d really want to live anyway after acid had corroded your face.
As they mounted the porch of Carl’s dingy home, Dan got ready to use the pistol again, but the door wasn’t locked.
“Two shots left. If they’re waiting in there to swarm us, I love you,” Angela said to Dan.
They entered the house and moved down a dusty hall with cracked mustard-hued ceiling tiles until they reached a chamber that once would have had posters more suitable for a dorm room than a living room on all its walls. No shapes emerged from anywhere. On what felt like the last night of the world, Nick found it incredible that they’d gotten this far.
The face of the man in the torn scarlet chair showed no surprise or alarm. Dan advanced into the room, the pistol raised. Nick and Angela watched warily from behind. The man smiled.
“Hello, Carl. You’re going to make this stop,” Dan said.
The smile broadened into a grin.
Dan turned, steadied the gun for a moment, and shot Angela in the forehead. She fell without a word.
“Oh, no. Oh, Jesus Christ,” Dan said, as the kru’s momentary hold over him relaxed and agency returned.
Dan dropped the Browning and fell to his knees, weeping uncontrollably.
“Carl, if you’re still in there somewhere. You didn’t have to do that to stop Dan from killing you,” Nick said.
At last the man spoke, in the same old voice Nick had always known.
“My name isn’t Carl, poor fool. Carl couldn’t have done that. More importantly, your premise is false. Dan here couldn’t kill me even if I let him try.”
Nick watched the blood and tissue flowing from Angela’s head into a pool on the dingy floor. He raised his eyes to the host’s.
“We’re here in this room through your agency.”
“If you like.”
Dan spoke from the floor.
“No. You monster. Fuck you. I knew exactly what I was doing for most of tonight. Not like what I felt just now.”
“Well, it’s an academic point, don’t you think? Here you are. For my part, I came to claim Carl because once in somewhat similar circumstances he made a promise, and I gave him a chance to make good on it and he failed by any measure. He knew what was coming. If you want someone to blame—”
“Carl went to Cambodia to do good. You talk about him like he was some kind of invader.”
“Carl was a selfish and wicked man. You clearly know little about the psychology of those who ‘help’ others. Anyway, I told him I required a sacrifice. He said he wasn’t ready to die. I let him live on the understanding that he’d made a solemn promise to me. He said he was no mystic but that I should take a broad view. He swore he’d live up to the best tradition of this time and place in the world, that he’d be worthy on its and his own terms, that that was all anyone could realistically ask of him. That he be worthy.”
“But you still required a sacrifice.”
“Correct. And someone was decent and selfless enough to make it.”
“All these years Carl’s been lying about how Ryutaro died. The very circumstances of his promise made it impossible to fulfill.”
“Not at all, Nick. He could have told the truth.”
Dan spoke again from the floor.
“Oh, yeah, so we were driving and we met this sorcerer in the jungle—”
“Shut up, Dan,” Nick said.
Nick thought again of that scene in church, all the heads turning and eyes alighting on a guy in the third row. What comes out of a person is what defines him.
“You look as if you’ve had some kind of epiphany,” the host said.
“I think I do understand why we’re here before you now.”
Dan rose, picking the gun off the floor.
“I shot Angela. I couldn’t stop myself. Now I need my friends and neighbors to stop dying. But I know … I know that no tradition will ever have me.”
The host’s eyes rested on him.
“Admirable, Dan. You finally admit you did shag that guy’s poor sister.”
“For fuck’s sake, everyone in town knows it. I’m no hero. I’m filth.”
For a moment the world outside was devoid of explosions and screams. The silence and stillness mocked Dan, goaded him.
“Dan. Give me the gun,” Nick said, as coming years, decades in the life of the town unfurled vividly in his mind’s eye.
“No. Let me kill myself.”
“Give me the gun.”
“You’re too proper and squeamish to watch me die.”
“No. It’s not that at all.”
At last Dan handed Nick the pistol.
“You’re a coward, Nick.”
“Yes, Dan, that’s true, but not in the sense you mean. And what you said about yourself just now applies more to someone else.”
The man in the chair watched with interest.
“Do explain,” the host said.
“I’m not going to make a promise I can never keep,” Nick answered as he raised the barrel of the gun to his temple.
Author Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). Washburn's story "Confessions of a Spook" won Causeway Lit's 2018 fiction contest.