by Chuck Wendig
Edited by Brian J. White
7. HAM SALAD
Dublin, Pennsylvania: October 19th, 2011
Walter Bard comes in the door. Throws his keys down, his hat, his jacket—tries to shed his day along with it but the day’s like a second skin you can’t just peel off. Every inch of him is tired. Most of his hours today he spent on scene at a car accident. Which, as he first pointed out, ain’t exactly homicide. But the way this thing happened, Jesus — guy with a metric shitload of aftermarket parts on his Dodge Charger comes blasting up the highway at a 140 miles an hour. Hits a minivan with a family of five in it. Three kids in the back. Two parents in the front.
Minivan spun, clipped a guardrail.
Went airborne. Back end of the vehicle started to fall apart mid-air, breaking up like a tortilla chip in a closing fist.
The Charger flipped, too, but the driver — a thick-necked juicer with an underbite so big his Daddy might’ve been a bulldog — got away with a broken arm and a broken leg.
The family of five wasn’t so lucky.
The three kids in the back, two girls, one boy, 10, 8, and 5 — each of them was dead the moment that car hit them. Their bodies were like gravel inside a lady’s stockings — bones reduced to bits. The parents are still alive. Dad’s got a shattered pelvis. Mom’s even worse. Brain injury. Spine injury. She’ll live, but it won’t exactly be a life.
Quick phone call to the DA made it clear what was gonna happen here: they were gonna push for third-degree murder. Try to prove that this guy wasn’t on drink or drugs and knew the score when he raced up the road going the speed of fucking light.
Which meant Bard had to be on scene. Working a case and a crime that wasn’t really his bag of tricks.
Not that he knew what his bag of tricks was, anymore.
Mostly, he just wanted to get a little place at the Jersey Shore and sit with Maisie looking at the beach, but even a closet at the Shore these days would cost him more than he makes at the job, and a damn sight more than he’ll make in retirement. And Maisie…
She greets him at the door like she always does. Slower now than she used to, given that she’s got to hobble on that cane — the MS leaves her with pain and dizziness and a feeling of walking on a floor made of pins and needles, but she shows up — his wife as faithful as an old hound.
He thinks of her that way and always feels bad, like comparing his wife to a dog is demeaning. But he loves dogs more than he loves most people. And so it is with Maisie. Not that they can have a dog, because she’s allergic.
Which goes to show how much Walter Bard loves his Maisie.
She hobbles up, and he bends down to meet her kiss and, like always, she puts a beer in his hand. A Yuengling lager. The bottle is cold in his grip — the weather outside is still a little warm, a leftover from a long, hot summer, and it feels good.
She asks him how his day was.
He tells her it was fine, fine.
She says she knows that tone and he can talk to her.
But he doesn’t tell her about the dead kids or their wish-they-were-dead parents because her day is rough enough.
Instead he just kisses her on the forehead.
Just as his cell phone rings.
“Ugh,” is the noise is makes. He answers it. “What.”
And that’s when they tell him: a couple kids playing in an old pumpkin patch found a body buried in the dirt. They need him on scene.
He looks at the beer, looks at his wife, and drags the back of his hand across the stubble of his chin.
“I gotta go,” he says.
Then it’s another kiss. Then he hands back the beer.
Then it’s back out the door.
8. BLACK ICE
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: December 17th, 2010
That’s the name that screams through his head as the gunshot rings in Dale’s ears. He staggers back — gasping, feeling at his chest for the torn shirt, the ruptured flesh, the heartsblood pumping onto his shirt first hot, then cold, his mind still calling for her, Susannah, Susannah!
Physically he feels—
Nothing but the cold of his shirt, his jacket, the snow that coughs off as he pats himself down looking for wounds that aren’t there.
Mentally, emotionally, intellectually _— well, that’s a different story. He feels like a man treading water in the icy lake of a bad nightmare. His whole life didn’t flash before his eyes, not like they said, but now, _now he’s really thinking about it. _Who am I? What the hell good did I do with my life? _And then, there again is her name, her face: Susannah. In the deep dark of his head. Scrawled on all the chalkboards. Drawn in all the wet cement.
Pant, pant, pant.
He whistles plumes of ice breath.
He looks down and around. He’s in the alley lined with heaps of frozen boulder trash bags and…
The two frozen men. The dead homeless twins.
Wrestling over a box that remains in their grip.
Dale’s guts drop out from under him like he’s on a fast-moving elevator to God-Knows-Where. He feels dizzy. Confused. Out of sorts, out of place, out of…
Out of time.
He pops the Seiko watch box, looks upon the scratched-up face—
It’s 2:59 a.m.
Last time he looked it was — what, 3:05? What the hell?
Trying to figure out what happened is like trying to catch all the M&Ms as they fall out of a ruptured bag — was it a hallucination? Is he high? He’s not high. No way he’s high. Did he fugue out? Have some kind of… psychotic break? Has sobriety fucked him up that bad?
It was the box. He held the box and pressed the button and…
He hurries back over — again losing it on the black ice, leg going out, shoulder cracking down, but this time he doesn’t even feel the pain, doesn’t even care about it. All he cares about is the box. He kneels next to the two dead men curled together like a pair of dried cockroaches and he gets his hands around the box and with no interest in being dainty about it he wrenches it free. Again skin cracks, fingers break — the wintry corpses yield the box easier this time.
That’s when he hears it—
It’s happening again.
With the red box in hand, Dale dives behind a cairn of snow-dusted trash bags and curls up so that no parts of him are exposed.
He waits. Tries to quiet his breath. His heart beats in his neck and temple like a boxer giving a punching bag a damn good drubbing and he’s afraid that like it’s loud enough that the tweaker can hear it, like something out of a meth-addicted Poe tale.
Hesitant footsteps. Feet crunching on snow, ice, broken asphalt.
The ground shakes. Bits of snow come off the trash bags onto Dale’s neck — a cold shock, but he thinks, don’t move, don’t make a peep.
Did the tweaker take a fall? Black ice, man. Black ice.
Another dizzy, world-shifting moment. He hears his own voice but can’t feel himself say those words, like they came from him but at a distance and…
The tweaker. Oh, shit. Oh shit, he found me, no no no—
But then: “Whoa, hold up—”
His words again.
And they don’t come out of his mouth.
Dale peeks up over the edge of the trash bags.
And that’s when he almost pisses himself. Because he’s not just here behind the bags — he’s there, too. In the middle of the alley. Not far from the dead men. Just like before.
No. Not like before. That Dale has the Seiko box, but does not have the red box with the black button. This Dale has that — and it hums in his hand, radiating waves of warmth up into his palm.
He feels outside himself. Is that a thing? That’s a thing. Out of body experiences. Astral projection. He dated a girl once believed in wacky shit like that. Donna. No! Dani. But this can’t be that. Because he feels himself here. He’s not a spirit. Not some… ethereal projection.
It all unfolds just as it did before.
The tweaker — this is my fuckin’ alley…
The Other Dale — I’ll turn and go, it’s cool…
It ain’t cool
What’s with the boxes
These aren’t anything
Gimme your stash
No stash to steal
I said this was a toll situation!
And then Other Dale hesitates — it’s a painful hesitation, a long taffy pull of each second stretching into five, and he can see the tweaker’s patience draining like gasoline from a punctured gas can—
The tweaker’s arm goes up, he shrieks—
This Dale, the one behind the trash bags, plugs his ears—
Other Dale staggers back. Patting at his chest and this time the hands finding the hole, the wound, the spreading blood. Already the color is draining from his face, mouth open in a wider and wider oh.
The tweaker freaks. He claws at his head like it’s covered in flies, bashing at his own skull with the gun. The tweaker is saying, “No, no, not again, Terry, not fucking again.” Then he shrieks one last time—
And turns tail and runs back the way he came. Running like a wildly spinning pinwheel — arms and legs in a cartoon flail as he flees.
All is silent.
The air smells of snow and spent gunpowder.
Dale crawls out on his hands and knees. He crawls over to Other Dale. Blood darkens the front of Other Dale’s shirt, black like the ice beneath him. Already freezing as it hits the ground. A swirl of fat snowflakes whitens the space between the two men.
Dale stares down at Other Dale.
Other Dale’s eyes go wide. In horror? Confusion? What?
No time to ask. Because soon as the eyes go wide, they also go dead. Pupils to pinpricks. All focus, fallen away like icicles breaking from a gutter.
Dale crawls off Other Dale and throws up. Or tries to. He doesn’t have much food in his belly and all he can do is dry-heave into the snow.
He stays like that for a while. Bent over on his hands and knees. Drool dangling from his lips. The red box with the black button still in his hand, still sending vibrations up his wrist, to his elbow, to his shoulder, to the base of his neck — tickle tickle.
Dale thinks, I’m dead.
But I’m not dead.
For a short time, the world had two Dales. That: a pretty awful thought. But now balance has returned. One of them is dead.
He continues to think of his Other Dale as, well, Other. Not him. Never was him. Different mind. Different soul. Separate identity.
It doesn’t make sense. None of it adds up. It’s impossible. He’s gotta still be dreaming. Hallucinating. Some side effect of getting clean, getting straight. The freaky Oxy-monkey howling and pissing inside his heart is doing this to him, somehow.
But he’s never felt more awake. Aware. Alive.
Somehow, the box did this.
The red box with the black button.
Clarity strikes him: a bright tone like fork tapping an empty wine glass. He grabs his body. Fishes out the wallet and stuffs it in his pocket with… well, his other wallet. (Again that trips him up: two of the exact same wallets, not just same in brand or in contents but — are they same all the way down to every molecule?)
Then he sees Other Dale’s watch box sitting there on the ice.
He grabs that, too.
He drags the corpse — his corpse — to the pile of trash bags.
He begins to heap the trash on top of the body. Bag by bag. Then a few remaining bags on top of the two dead men: the original box keepers.
All three bodies, now hidden.
Dale laughs — a mad cackle that comes up out of him like the notes of a discordant instrument. Then, mad with life and panic, he runs.
9. COUNTING TEETH
Doylestown, Pennsylvania: October 21st, 2011
Bard sits at his desk in the back corner of the station picking at a bag of beef jerky. Gnawing on hunks of dried cow like he’s eating shoe leather. It’s disgusting. And delicious. And it helps him think.
Twenty-two bodies. All of them buried in a Richboro pumpkin patch. Farmer was old, too old to really do much with his field anymore. Blind as a bat, too. Still grows the pumpkins every year even though his wife tells him he’s just gonna let them rot. That’s what she was most concerned about — not the bodies someone buried out in their far-flung field without them noticing, oh no. It was the husband planting pumpkins despite her telling him not to.
And all the teeth match.
Across every body but two.
One body is another white male. Might be the same but all the teeth are knocked out.
The other body is a woman’s body.
Fresh, too. Recent. Still trying to find an ID on her.
No one consistent manner of death among them, either. Some are shot. Others bludgeoned. Stabbed. Choked.
That’s when Bard thinks: I’m gonna quit. Or retire. Or whatever the fuck you wanna call it. I gotta check out. This game just got too rich for my blood. _What’s the line from that movie? _I’m too old for this shit. _Let some scrappy up-and-comer handle it. Not that this little nowhere department _has any scrappy up-and-comers.
They’ll shove some uni into the detective test, make sure he passes, and that poor ruddy-cheeked baby will have to fix it.
Good. Fine. Great.
And yet, Bard remains seated.
A shadow hovers.
“How long you been standing there?”
“Less than a minute,” Timpkins says.
“We have another body. Not one of ours. Philly.”
Bard closes his eyes and sighs. Imagines the Jersey Shore. The hush-hush of waves. The happy shrieks of hungry gulls. “Bullshit.”
“This one’s from almost a year ago.”
Walter holds out a hand. Timpkins puts a file into it.
Body. Found in an alley near Temple University. Frozen cold during the bad winter. Stayed hidden until some hooker found it as she knelt down to… well, not to pray, that’s for sure.
He tries to find an ID.
Timpkins butts in: “Rats must’ve eaten the fingertips.”
The jerky suddenly tastes rancid. Meaty bits stuck between his teeth don’t make it any better. He scowls. “So what’s it to us?”
“It’s, ahhh. It’s one of the same.”
“Like the pumpkin patch bodies.”
“Teeth confirm it.”
Bard rolls his knuckles on his desk. They crack. It hurts. Good.
“Timpkins, I don’t like you anymore.”
“You just bring me bad news. So I tell you what, next time you bring me bad news, you need to bring me a present, too. A… a cookie. Maybe an ice cream sandwich. Hell, you really want to make me happy, bring me some good news next time instead of just layering more shit on top of shit. How’d that be?”
“Yeah. You try.”
Bard dismisses the geek with a flip little wave. Timpkins hovers for a moment like a bee bumping its head at the window, then flits off.
This day sucks, he thinks.
Then the phone rings.
And it gets a lot worse.