A Plate Of Strange Meat
by Chuck Wendig
Edited by Brian J. White
22. A PLATE OF STRANGE MEAT
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: October 22nd, 2011.
“You want some salami?”
Bill pushes a plate in front of Walter. The old cop looks the brother up and down, and though he hasn’t seen Dale in any state beyond dead and dug up, he’s seen the man’s bone structure. Seen the way his head was shaped, the way his face was laid out — with families in particular, it’s interesting how faces aren’t like snowflakes or fingerprints but rather it’s like they’re poor copies of one another. Like someone was trying to paint the original but wasn’t very good and got it halfway wrong.
And so he sees the resemblance. Bill is bigger, beefier — the football version, the wrestler version. But it’s in there.
Walter shakes his head. “I’m fine, thank you.”
A good life lesson is not to take strange meat from strange people.
“You’re here about Dale,” Bill says.
“He in trouble?” Bill sets the plate down and runs a paw over his forehead and scalp, mussing his own already-thinning hair. “God, man, damn. My bro, he’s always got something — you know, it’s just, I wanna say he has bad luck but I’m coming around to the idea that you make your own luck in this world and, and, you know, I always say that if you wanna get struck my lightning first you gotta walk out into the storm, and my bro, yo, he’s always walking right out into the storm. With a metal umbrella and a pot on his head. You feel me?”
“Your brother is dead,” Walter says.
Bill stiffens. Then laughs. “Oh. Good one.”
“Ain’t a joke, Mister Gilooly.”
“I, I, wha…” He makes a strangled sound in the back of his throat, then runs not one but both hands over his head. His hair stands up like he just got electrocuted. “How? Pills? Some kinda… Heath Ledger-style overdose? I knew getting money could be a bad thing for him. I knew that.”
“We’re still working to figure that out,” Walt says. “When did you last see your brother, Mister Gilooly?”
“Uh. Bill. Call me Bill.”
“When did you last see Dale, Bill?”
“Jeez. Ahh. Fourth of July, that’s what it was. We usually — we used to get together on that day but then we hadn’t for some time and, this year, you know, he just showed up. But it wasn’t just that he was showing up, it’s that he was showing off. Like, he had a new car, had a fancy watch — god, did he make a thing about that watch — and ahhh, you know, we ended the night in a fight and then he took off in that new Beamer.”
Fourth of July.
Three months ago.
An investigation usually works like so: you got a crime, then you start putting puzzle pieces together when you find them, and that’s what an investigation is. It’s hunting down puzzle pieces that fit this particular puzzle. Sometimes you find pieces that don’t fit and so you throw them away. Sometimes you never find any more pieces and the file gets closed because the picture never comes together.
But this one, this is different. In this one, pieces keep coming off the puzzle. Any time he thinks he has a part of it put together, more pieces fall away — and they fall away from parts and pictures he didn’t even know were in question yet.
What he knows is: he’s got multiple bodies.
And they all appear to be the bodies of one man.
A man who people have seen after some — if not all — of his bodies hit the ground.
None of that makes sense.
None of that even seems possible.
And yet, there it is.
For Walt, the puzzle metaphor no longer works here. This isn’t that. He’s no longer piecing anything together. He’s following a thread. A thin, frail, ready-to-snap thread, and he’s doing it through a dark house with a shitty penlight between his teeth, the kind where the battery is going dead and the narrow beam keeps flickering.
It hits him, suddenly. Like the tolling of a church bell across a quiet town — this is it for him. This is his last case. He’s done. He doesn’t want to do this anymore. He just wants to go home to Maisie. They have a retirement account. It won’t be rich living but it’ll be living. Until that living is over because nobody escapes death.
“You okay, detective?” Bill asks.
“Huh? Yeah, yeah. Everything’s kosher, Bill. Tell me — Dale, he seem strange to you? You ever see him with… anybody who looks like him?”
“I don’t follow.”
“I don’t either, but if you could just answer the question to the best of your ability—”
“He was always a strange kid, but that was our Dad’s doing, I guess. Dad didn’t like Dale much. Dale had a thing for this girl, Susannah — he knocked her up once, I guess, but like most things in Dale’s life, none of that exactly worked out.”
“She lose the baby?”
“I guess. He wouldn’t talk about it. All I know is they were a thing one minute, a couple pill-heads in love, and then she got clean and he didn’t and they weren’t together anymore. No baby between ‘em. He’s still broken up about it. Or, ahh, was, anyway, when I talked to him last week.”
“What? Last week? You said you hadn’t seen him since July.”
Bill holds up both hands like he’s surrendering, like he’s in trouble somehow. “Hey, I hadn’t. But I talked to him on the phone last week.”
“You still got that number?”
“And while you’re at it, I’m gonna need everything you know about this Susannah woman. Everything.”
23. TIME ISN’T HOLDING US
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Christmas Day, 2010.
Concussed Dale listens to the Other Dale shower. Everything hurts and he doesn’t know where he is. What’s the line from that song? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.
Other Dale is now Present Dale. He is not a Dale better or worse than any other Dale, he is just the current, up-to-date Dale. The one that has survived so far. The fittest, the most capable, the most present.
Concussed Dale doesn’t even think of himself as Dale anymore.
He’s someone different. He can see things, now, can see the world in blue lights and red lines, everything connected yet separate, and he’s drifting further and further away from this life, this world, this timeline — he can feel his DNA exploding outward like a star gone supernova and of course it’s also true that yes, indeed, he has had a concussion for some time now and his brain is probably swollen and bleeding and collecting water like a tin pail under a dripping pipe and whatever blah blah blah but none of that changes the fact that he isn’t really Dale anymore, he’s someone else.
He chooses the name Dave.
It’s close to Dale. Just one letter off.
But it’s different, now. Just like he’s close, but different, too.
“I’m Dave,” he says to the showering wall.
The duct tape around his ankles and arms is strong and he is weak and so he sits in the chair. Sometimes he rocks back and forth. Not to escape, but just because he digs the motion. Like being on a boat. Boats are nice.
Has he ever actually been on a boat?
He doesn’t know.
(You may ask yourself: how did I get here?)
Didn’t he and Susannah do a booze cruise one time? They took a boat from Penn’s Landing, right? Some kind of Liberty Bell Ball, some New Year’s Eve thing. He doesn’t remember it. The Oxy. The Champagne. Didn’t they fuck in the middle of the party? They did! It was like, they were sitting off to the side in a little uncomfortable booth while the boat bobbed and blah blah blah Jimmy Buffett and she sat on his lap and tugged her skirt up and shit, she wasn’t wearing panties and then zip — which is the onomatopoeia sound for a zipper going up or down, it occurs to him, and in this case the zipper was most definitely coming down and then he was thrusting up inside her and she was bouncing on his lap and they were both laughing until they weren’t laughing anymore because sex is sometimes like that where it’s fun and funny at first but then it gets serious as the whole thing starts to build and build a tiger in a cage about to knock the door open and jump to freedom—
That was it, wasn’t it? That was the moment of conception.
Two Oxy-addled idiots stealth-fucking on a Penn’s Landing booze cruise and what’s that line from the dinosaur movie? Life will find a way.
He says that to the wall, to Dale showering behind it:
“Life will find a way, Dale!”
Except life also finds a way to squash other life and that’s what they did, they squashed it. She got clean because Susannah is great, she’s smart, she knew the drill. And she and he were supposed to get together, supposed to talk it out, figure the way forward, but the pressure was so crushing it was like being at the bottom of the ocean, everything pressing in at all sides, every molecule of him squeezing against every other molecule — and so he did what he did best, he got fucking gonzo blitzed on Oxy and never met with her and he kept the high going and when the next time they spoke it was by text message and she told him what happened:
She had an abortion.
It was a test and he failed it and now they lost the baby.
“We were going to name the baby Dave,” he says. Is that true? Or is that just the concussion talking? Did he choose a new name for himself that’s also the name of their dead baby which wasn’t really a dead baby but rather a confluence of cells that became a tadpole though he did read in a book later on that the little tadpole might’ve had a heartbeat and—
And okay, now he’s crying.
He wants to wipe his eyes but can’t, wants to blow his nose but he can’t, so the snot just leaks all over him and the tears run over the snot and he realizes how badly he’s fucked his life up and so he says through the walls:
“I get it now, Dale, I get it. You want to fix everything and that’s okay that’s cool but I see the Box and it’s got all these threads connected to it. Fishing lines and fishing hooks, man, and every time you push that button things get weirder and the lines get brighter and every time you’re out there killing yourself and think about that, man, just think about it you’ll never know if you’re the killer or the to-be-killed because at any moment you could turn that corner and there you’ll be with a gun or a knife or a fucking hand grenade and the Other You will remind you that you’re about to make a terrible mistake and he’s about to correct it but oh he needs the Box, too, and then you realize, oh, shit, you’re not the one pressing the button, he’s the one who already pressed it, and then he kills you and he becomes you and the lights get brighter and the lines get tighter and molecules scatter—”
All this blubbers out of him through spit and snot and sobs.
“But I get it,” he says, finally. “I know why you’re doing it. And I forgive you, Dale. But I feel like this is maybe another test. And I wonder if you’re going to pass it. I don’t think you’re going to.”
24. YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Christmas Day, 2010.
Dale comes out of the shower, wreathed in a robe of steam.
A hot shower. In an apartment. In his apartment.
This place! It’s his.
Pre-furnished 800-square-foot apartment. It isn’t Old City, Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, none of that. It’s not ditzy-ritzy ooh-la-la, but it’s nice. No roaches. No rust. No cracked drywall or crackheads in the hall. White walls. Bright lights. Smells like cleaning supplies, not like old cigarette smoke and burning plastic.
The apartment building’s right off of Market. He’s paying, what, $800 a month, plus a security deposit, and that dropped his take from the casino down to two grand which is a shame…
But he had to get out of there.
It’s step one of the plan.
And step two is…
He goes into the bedroom because Concussed Dale is babbling and sobbing again (Jesus Christ, getting that guy up the steps and into this apartment without anybody looking was a chore and a half, and already his back feels tweaked). In there he grabs the phone.
Then he dials Susannah.
Just that one little word of greeting. It launches his heart into the stratosphere. “Susannah. It’s—”
“Dale, it’s Christmas. You understand? This is Christmas. I’m not your girl anymore. I’m not anything to you anymore. Most of all, I’m not your drug buddy anym—”
“Whoa, whoa, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“I wanted to apologize. I need to do this right. When I called you I was just out of a program and I was clean but — everything hit me at once. It was like a wave crashing down and pulling all my sand out to sea, you know? I need to make amends for all the people I hurt. People whose lives—”
“Got wrecked. Because of you. You’re like… you’re like Godzilla. Just stomping on everything in your path.”
Then is quiet.
He’s quiet too and he doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t want to ruin it. Though between them is a gulf that feels epic, it no longer feels endless and eternal. It feels like maybe, just maybe, they’re a little closer.
“I get it,” she says, finally. “We were both, you know…” She lowers her voice because maybe someone else is there with her, he doesn’t know. “We were both pretty fucked up, Dale. I just got cleaner sooner. I should be more sympathetic it’s just — that life, and the people in it? I was afraid you were trying to pull me back into all that.”
“Maybe I was. But I didn’t want to. And I don’t want to now.” _I love you, Susannah. _He doesn’t dare say that, not yet. That’s too big a thing. That would be a mistake — a mistake that would demand he run to the other room, grab the Box, and press the button.
And that would mean he’d have another body to bury.
When already he knows more are on the way.
“Hey, I got a new apartment.”
“That’s nice. That’s real nice.”
“Maybe you can come see it sometime.”
“Yeah, I…” He feels the twinge in his gut before she even says it, her words presaged by the tone in her voice. “I have somebody, Dale. We live together. He’s good for me. He’s a bartender at a swanky faux-speakeasy which I think makes him a mixologist or something?”
“I’m a computer analyst,” he lies. Then he cringes. This wasn’t supposed to go that way. A little lie like that, he was trying to keep this all above board. Trying to keep it honest. He’s afraid that the lie is like a cockroach: you spot one, it means a hundred others are hiding in the walls, making little cockroach babies.
“Oh,” she says, obviously surprised. “That’s good. Good for you.”
“It’s a shame,” he says, and he feels a tightness in his chest. “We had a bad thing going but we were good together. And I don’t think we got to be our best selves around one another. At least, I didn’t.”
“That’s how life is, Dale. You make mistakes and you move forward to fix it. You can’t go back over old territory. We’re not time travelers.”
Then she tells him she has to go. Because, again, it’s Christmas.
And when he says goodbye and hangs up, it hits him:
It really is Christmas.
Talking to her was a great present. But now the gift is unwrapped and empty. It was temporary. Fleeting.
He has no one to eat dinner with. No one to drink egg nog with.
A little voice says: Oxy would be a nice companion right now.
A competing voice says: Or the Box. Go push the button. It feels so good to push the button. I bet it’ll even start to feel good when you bash your own brains in — another guest for the Pumpkin Patch Bed & Breakfast! Or maybe that should be: Dead & Breakfast?
He goes into the other room.
Concussed Dale lifts his head. The lower half of his face is slick and shiny with mucus, spittle, tears. He bubbles: “Hey, Dale.”
“I’m Dave, now.”
“Sure. You wanna drink?”
“Everything is a labyrinth,” Concussed Dale — or Dave? — says. “But it’s like a labyrinth where the path and the walls aren’t defined until we see ‘em and make a choice and then the whole thing unfolds in front of us like a piece of origami being pulled apart by greedy hands and holy fucking shit, man, the minotaur in the middle of the maze, I think it’s us. I think we’re our own minotaur, Dale, and I think the maze is our life and everything is lights and everything is connected, a big bright spider web of—”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Dale says, and goes and gets a bottle of vodka he popped in the freezer. He’s not supposed to be drinking but it’s all under control now. That’s what he tells himself and really, it’s true.
He plunks the bottle down on the coffee table and pulls Dave around the edge of the couch — microfiber, the lady said, whatever that means — and points him toward the flat-screen TV on the wall. He doesn’t have cable yet — they’re coming Tuesday — but he puts on the TV anyway and watches the blue-screen.
“It’s festive,” he says.
“Festive restive restless captive flux capacitor lux velociraptor,” Dave babbles. And laughs.
Dale puts a shot of vodka to Dave’s lips. Dave sips. It dribbles.
“You haven’t killed me yet,” Dave says.
“I dunno. I like your company.”
“Okay.” He smacks his lips together. “I like the new place.”
“Don’t get too comfy.”
“I’ll be in a new place in a month or two.”
“I’ve got two grand. I’m going to gamble it.”
“Using the Magic Bloody Button-Pushy Box.”
Dale nods, and pulls a mouthful from the vodka bottle. It burns clean.
“But you can’t go back to the casino,” Dave says. “You’re on camera there. You show up again with the Mystery Device and they’ll start to get weird. You’ll end up in a Guantanamo Gulag, waterboarded for your sins.”
Dale shakes his head. “Can’t go back there, no. But I don’t need to.”
“So how you gonna make the chits and ducats?”
Dale grins. “You ever hear of a ‘superfecta?’ “
25. TWO SHIPS
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: October 23rd, 2011.
Walter knocks on the townhouse door.
He hears shuffling. Then footsteps.
Then a pause at the door, followed by a click.
A woman peers out from over the latched chain. Dark hair. Short. Messy. Circles around her eyes. Eyes that are red and puffy.
She sniffs. He hears all that emotion backed up in the deep of her sinuses when she asks: “Yes?”
“Ma’am, I’m Walter Bard, a detective for the county of Bucks, and I’m investigating…” He’s not even sure what to say here. A murder? A suicide? He finally settles on: “A mystery. Are you Susannah Lynch?”
She nods and sniffles. “I am.”
“Do you know a man named Dale Gilooly?”
She stiffens. Her mouth forms a tight line.
“You just missed him, detective.”