Passenger

Andrew Smith

Feiwel & Friends

one
 
 
I was in the garage.
But it wasn’t the garage.
*   *   *
I rolled over onto my side and watched the gray light coming through the window, now uncovered, an asterisk of jagged fractures in the lower right pane centered in the quadrant of rusting muntin strips like someone had started a game of tic-tac-toe there with a hammer and then gave up.
X.
It all looked so familiar.
But it wasn’t.
I don’t know how long I lay there like that. There was the loose jumble of disjointed things I knew: I was in Mr. Goodrich’s garage—I was certain of it—and it felt like I was about to puke, but I had to hold it back, think about something else, because it was my friends’ house, after all, and I just didn’t want to move yet.
But something was wrong.
I became suddenly aware that I had been drooling. Warm spit ran down my cheek and onto the oilstained concrete floor, and something black scuttled toward my feet.
Griffin’s cat, I thought.
And where was Griffin?
Where were Conner and Ben?
I pushed myself up to a sitting position, my legs spread out like arrows, clockhands on the floor.
“Hey,” I called. “Where’d you guys go?”
My clothes were different. The knees on the dusty jeans I wore had been torn through, and I was filthy. Somehow, I remembered it. The shirt hung open, unbuttoned, striped.
I don’t have any striped shirts.
One sleeve was rolled to my elbow; the other hung limply, unraveled over my arm, like something dead. A number had been stitched across the left shoulder, above a spot where the pocket had been torn away.
373
It didn’t mean anything to me, but I felt that tickle in my head.
I was supposed to remember something.
And I had work boots on.
I wasn’t wearing boots. I never wear things like this.
One of them was untied, half hanging off my foot.
Movement again.
The bugs.
I could hear them eating, chewing, burrowing their way into a pile of stained rags crumpled across the bottom of the wide roll-up garage door. But I knew it wasn’t rags.
Who was it?
“Hey. Con?”
I gasped, pushed myself onto my feet and immediately fell backward, dizzy. I slammed my hip against the workbench where we’d clamped the lens down in Mr. Goodrich’s vice. My foot kicked the hammer; it spun a half circle and pointed to me.
Spin the hammer.
You really fucked up this time.
My eyes darted from the rags, the bugs, to the vice. I saw the lens, broken, dull, like it had been drained of something, and when I grabbed for it, I cut a deep gash across the palm of my hand and watched dumbly as my blood dropped thick and hot onto the floor, splattering the tops of my boots and the smooth wooden handle on the hammer.
The sting felt good.
Get a grip.
I closed my hand, sticky with my own blood, pushed the broken lens down inside my pocket.
Don’t look at it.
No. These were not my clothes.
“Griff?”
I took three slow steps—counted them—toward the heap lying against the door. It jerked, electric, as the bugs tore into their task beneath the canvas clothing that covered what once was a person.
Cleaning.
Always cleaning away everything dead.
One of the harvesters followed the dots of blood I’d left on the concrete. I heard scraping sounds from its jaws as it tried eating the little bits of me I’d scattered there. I pushed my foot down inside the untied boot and then stomped my heel square across the harvester’s shell. It was nearly as big as a cat and it burbled a hiss when it broke in two, spastic legs twitching in slick goo, protesting while cousins came eagerly to pick it apart.
The thing beside the door had been a soldier. His uniform looked the same as those we’d once found on a train, and I couldn’t remember when that had ever happened. Trying to figure out where that image belonged in Jack’s head was impossible.
The soldier had been dead for some time, too. The bugs kept grinding away at the side of his skull, and I saw a jagged piece of what looked like a collarbone being pulled under a lawnmower, five feet away.
I couldn’t see the name on his shirt. It was too stained.
I looked back at the door that led into the house—to the kitchen. I had been here plenty of times, took stock of the things in the garage that I knew would always be there. And I looked out the broken window again, could see the ashen sky.
I was in the garage.
And the garage was in Glenbrook, at Ben and Griffin’s house.
But this was Marbury.
*   *   *
I thought if I pressed my palms hard enough into my eyes, maybe it would all go away. But the sound of the bugs kept me there, the sting in my hand, and I realized I had smeared my face with my own blood.
A door opened.
The door to the house.
I jerked.
Ben Miller stood in the dark of the hallway holding a rusted spike of rebar and pointing it out past the threshold, aiming the spear at the center of my chest.
“Ben?”
Ben twitched like the sound of his name punched him square in the face.
He didn’t answer. He looked different: thinner maybe. His eyes were sunken and dark and his hair hung down on one side to the edge of his narrowed mouth. It was Ben, but it wasn’t Ben.
And he was terrified. Of me.
“Ben Miller?”
I didn’t move.
“We don’t have any food, kid. I don’t know what the fuck you want here. Go back to where you came from, Odd.”
I felt dizzy again; drunk. Ben Miller was standing in the doorway, shaking, right in front of me. And I could see he had no idea who I was.
“Don’t you know who I am?” I held out my hands. I looked down at myself, at the bloodstained gash across my right palm. I must have looked like a lunatic to him, blood smeared across the side of my face.
I argued like a lawyer in court, “You know me, don’t you?” I needed to hear my voice. I didn’t want to think it could be possible that I was here, that this was Glenbrook, that we were back in Marbury. But things were different.
Griffin hid behind Ben; I could see his eyes glint when they peeked out around the older boy’s tensed arm. He whispered something. Griffin’s hair reached his shoulders. He was shirtless, like always, if always had anything to do with where we were. And both of the boys were covered in smears of dirt.
Somehow, I knew we’d all gone back.
But it wasn’t the same.
I knew it then, standing in that garage while harvesters picked away at the remains of a dead man; and while Ben Miller, this scared kid who didn’t know who I was, held me back with a weapon I was sure he wouldn’t hesitate to use; while Griffin stood in the dark, studying me, defiant and snot nosed, unwavering in his determination to keep me away from their home.
Griffin pulled Ben’s shoulder and whispered to him again. Then he pointed at me, and Ben said, “I know. I saw it, too.”
“Griffin Goodrich,” I said. “Your brother. Well, your half brother’s name is Ben Miller. Don’t you know who I am?”
This time, I heard what Griffin said to his brother: “How does that prisoner know our names?”
Odd. Prisoner. It didn’t make any sense.
“We know who you are,” Ben said. “But we never seen you before in our life.”
I couldn’t tell what he meant. His face was stiff, determined, and when I took a step toward the doorway, Ben tipped his spear up like he was warning me back.
“Look,” I said. “Are you going to let me in, or what?”
“You can leave the same way you came,” Griffin said.
I don’t know how I got here.
I put my hands down, looked back at the heap of rags by the main garage door.
“There’s a dead soldier back there,” I said.
Ben let the tip of his spear clink down on the concrete floor between his feet.
A warning.
“He’s there ’cause that’s the spot where I killed him two days ago.”
Two days. What was two days ago?
“He didn’t have any gun or nothing, if that’s what you’re looking for,” Griffin said.
“And we don’t have any food,” Ben added. He scraped an arc across the floor with the point of his spear, and I could see how it was stained with what looked like dried blood.
Griffin pulled Ben’s shoulder down toward his face again. “It’s going to rain pretty soon.”
“That’s not our problem, Griff.”
I looked down at the hammer. I looked at Ben.
Come on, Ben. You have to remember me.
He kept his eyes pinned on me, too.
“That door. There. You can go now and we won’t tell anyone we saw you. You take one more step toward my house and I’ll have to kill you.”
Ben Miller wasn’t joking.
I glanced at Griffin, then at Ben. The tip of the spear angled toward the side door. Outside was Forest Trail Lane, but there were never any forests in Glenbrook.
And this wasn’t Glenbrook.
When I pulled the door open and looked out, I could feel Ben’s eyes on me, the same way you’d watch a dangerous animal until it decided to change direction.
I said, “Try to remember me, Griffin. Ben. I’m your friend.”
Then I went outside.
*   *   *
Everything is scarier, more brilliant and unsteady, when you’re alone. After that door swung shut behind me, and I could hear Ben and Griffin on the other side, pushing things around, building a barrier between me and them, I felt like I was walking out into my death.
I looked back along the boys’ house, where I remembered a flagstone trail led through a wrought-iron arbor to a backyard pool. It was the same house, but sections of the roof were missing. The curved red pottery tiles had spilled down in scattered shards and exposed the tarred and buckling plywood and flapping strips of black felt.
There was wind.
Every one of the windows had been broken, and in places, the concrete stucco of the house’s siding had been pounded in as though pummeled by stones or shrapnel. There was no arbor, no flagstones, and when I walked around the corner I saw that the pool had been drained, now filled with broken debris: a realtor’s FOR SALE sign; part of a wire-mesh picnic bench like the ones they had in Steckel Park; a life-sized fiberglass horse—the kind that you’d see on top of a feed store—but this one was headless; and an overturned station wagon that was missing three of its wheels.
And there was no fence, no sidewalks, no street I could see.
Forest Trail Lane.
I could tell where the street was supposed to be. A tilted fire hydrant, the skeletons of things marked a familiar path that was now covered beneath the gray salty ash that was everywhere in Marbury. I thought about my truck, how we’d all squeezed into the cab, sand sticking to our skin, when the four of us drove back to the boys’ house from the beach.
Before I broke the lens.
I couldn’t help myself, and I immediately felt stupid for doing it. I spun around and yelled, “Conner!”
Nothing.
“Conner!”
Wind.
Ash.
I whispered, hoping for anything that might connect here to anywhere I knew, “Seth?”
Seth had always been there before. He was the ghost, a part of me, who linked me between the gaps, Marbury, home, wherever this place was or was not.
But it was empty. Seth wasn’t here, either.
I sat down in front of the house. I knew Ben and Griffin were watching through one of the cracks in their house, ready to fight, to defend themselves.
Against me.
The neighbors’ homes were there—some of them. Most had been broken down to the foundations. The others were empty—I could tell—and not just because I could see right through them. There’s a silent message you get from an abandoned house that lets you know exactly how things are.
A refrigerator lay on its side in the middle of what would have been the street. Its door had fallen open. There was a man’s head inside. I felt the need to go there, make sure it wasn’t someone I knew—someone else Jack dragged along with him into this pit.
They had their own aesthetic sensibilities, I thought. The harvesters, the Hunters. They didn’t eat everything. They didn’t wipe everything clean. They decorated.
I didn’t recognize the face. The eyes were squinted shut like they had been stung with vinegar, and the man had puffy cheeks that stretched his mouth into a narrow smile and showed a row of bloodied teeth that all looked ridiculously small.
Welcome back.
It’s the same old Marbury.
Jack’s hometown.
I started walking.
And I knew where I would go: Conner’s house was closer, and then to see if I could find Wynn and Stella’s.
All the way down Forest Trail Lane it was the same. Houses were burned or abandoned, things were strewn everywhere in chaotic order, and nothing moved except the small things that vibrated on the wind.
My foot struck against something in the ash. I nearly fell, but caught myself with my hand. The salt burned in my cut. It was bad. It should have stitches. I thought about how Griffin had never been afraid to do things like that—stitch us up when we got cut.
Whenever that was.
It was a book. I brushed it off and lifted it from the dust. A dictionary.
The cover warped like a dried orange rind; the pages inside pasted together as though the book had been dragged up from the bottom of a sea.
There was a flash of light and something exploded overhead, louder than any sound I’d ever heard.
I jerked, curled myself down against the ground.
I need to get out of here.
Out of breath, I watched the sky.
It came again. Lightning. But it was bigger, thicker than any lightning I’d ever seen, and the boom of the thunderclap felt like hammers pounding my brain.
Another hammer, I thought. Maybe it will break me in half, too.
And I’d never seen lightning in Marbury before. Not ever.
The burning light was so thick, so bright, it looked almost crystallized, as though, if I had the right timing, I could swing that hammer and shatter razor-sharp icicles of pure energy from the bolts. And every time they flashed, I felt the electric charge stiffen and prickle the hair on the back of my neck.
At the end of Forest Trail Lane, the old highway ran north and south. It was the main road through Glenbrook before they’d constructed the 101.
This isn’t Glenbrook.
On the corner stood the lower half of a two-story. The only thing I could see on the exposed upper floor was a toilet and an overturned bathtub. It still had a ring of dirt around the bottom.
“Prime location for Glenbrook real estate,” I said.
My voice sounded strange, tighter. But I knew I’d need to get under something until the lightning stopped, and the bottom level of the shattered house was the closest thing that looked capable of hiding me, so I carried the dictionary under one arm and ran for the doorway.
Another flash of lightning exploded. It hit the street back where I’d come from, sending up a glowing mushroom cloud of ash that seemed to set the air around it on fire.
This was like no lightning I’d ever seen anywhere.
Where the curb would be, I found a rusted yellow Tonka dump truck and one boy’s tennis shoe with a picture of a ninja on the side. The ninja had red eyes. The boy who wore that shoe at one time couldn’t have been more than five.
Another flash.
I ran.
When I moved, the explosion of thunder was so loud it felt like it lifted me, pushed me toward the broken door at the front of the house. And, dumbly, I stood there for just a moment and nearly raised my hand to knock.
The door had a slot window in the center of it, but the swirled yellow glass had long since been broken, making a lamprey’s mouth of needle teeth around the edges of the frame. I saw where the knob, the hardware, was vacant, leaving just a hole through the core. The door pushed easily inward and sucked a breath of air over me as if the house were tasting my scent.
I hesitated.
Another flash spit my shadow across the floor, and before the next blast of thunder came I scrambled inside, pressing the door shut with the heel of my boot.
Then the rain came. It smelled like burning aluminum and fell so thick and heavy that I couldn’t even hear the cusswords I yelled.
“Is there anybody in here?”
Flash.
A snapshot image of the house’s interior burned into my eyes.
To my left, a staircase rose into the darkness of the ceiling. Somebody had covered the opening to the upper floor, which was now the roof, with corrugated tin that roared and vibrated under the constant downpour. Water trickled in from the sides, spattering down on the house’s rotten carpeting. I held my hand under the stream; washed my face. It made me smell like a foundry. There had to be something wrong with that water.
Thinking it almost made me laugh. What could possibly be wrong with anything here in Marbury?
The entryway at the foot of the stairs opened onto what was once a living room and kitchen. I put the dictionary down on a jagged pier of bar top that extended out from one wall. There was something about the book, I thought, that was important.
Something.
Even though the windows had been knocked out long ago, there was hardly enough light coming in for me to clearly see what was around me.
I called out, “Is anybody in here?”
Nothing.
Rain.
“Anyone? I’m alone. I’m lost.”
Flash.
It was like a bomb going off.
One of the walls appeared to buckle inward then snap back, like the house was rubber. My eyes scanned across the floor. Junk was everywhere. Pieces of soggy drywall, a hair dryer with its cord tied into a noose, the gutted frame of a television, clothing, the door from a shower stall. I saw a belt, and thought about picking it up, but there was an entire human pelvis, picked perfectly clean, yellow-white, lying among other bones beneath it.
People had been here recently, too. I could smell them. The place reeked like an underground pisser in summertime, and the stink made me want to pee, too, so I did it, right there against the wall under the staircase.
Fuck this place.
Flash.
I watched the conical stain of my piss slick downward over the wall. It somehow made me feel good, like I was real, alive.
Another explosion.
I looked at my feet, and that’s when I found the knife. Perfect and beautiful, like it had just been purchased at a sporting goods store, and I could almost smell the freshness of its leather sheath. Someone had taken care of it. Someone who didn’t need it anymore. I turned it over in my hands, felt the sharpness of its edge, then unbuckled my belt and threaded the sheath onto my side.
Something crashed into the wall in the kitchen. It sounded like the door on a cupboard. It slammed three more times before I rounded a brick hearth where water splashed down from the shattered chimney somewhere above me on the naked second floor.
A man stood there, kicking his foot against the wood paneling beneath the place where a sink should have been. He was completely naked, deathly pale, but covered with brilliant tattoos all the way from his belly down to the soles of his bony feet; and nothing at all above his waist, just white, hairless skin. He looked like a centaur or something.
He turned and glared at me, his jaw working up and down like he was chewing something, trying to get words out, and my hand fell down onto the handle of the knife before I realized it was only a ghost.
Then he vanished.
“Wait! Wait! Please, let me talk to you.”
He was gone.
“Come back!”
I went over to the place where he’d been standing and kicked the wall as hard as I could. I felt the wood cracking beneath my foot, and when I looked down inside the empty black crib where the sink had been, I saw him again—the man—curled on his side, rotting in death.
Rain came straight down from the vacant square where a window had looked out—on what?—from over the sink, and it made his skin slick, snakes and fish, twisted cables of wire and swords, saints and skeletons that vibrated like cartoons inked on his rotting hide. Something black crawled up inside his nostril. I turned away and threw up beside a twisted heap of metal window blinds that was left crumpled on the kitchen floor.
Flash.
The lightning came less frequently, but the rain was constant, howling against the tin sheeting and bare floor above me. I kicked the metal blinds, turning them over. There were maybe a dozen harvesters that scattered out from underneath the heap.
And I saw the body of a little boy there, too.
He had only one shoe on. Nothing else.
I covered him again.
“Fuck!” I staggered out of the kitchen, around the fireplace, the smell of aluminum; the smell of aluminum and vomit.
I shut my eyes, and leaned my folded arms on the broken piece of countertop where I’d left the dictionary.
Flash.
I have got to get the fuck out of here.
Get a grip, Jack. You’re not going anywhere.
Think.
I had to think.
The dictionary.
I peeled through the pages. Some of them tore. Some would not separate at all.
The rain kept pounding.
Pounding relentlessly against the anvil of this wrecked house.
The hammer.
The water came splattering down on the stairway. The stench was nauseating.
I couldn’t hear the bugs. That was good.
I looked up California.
There was no such word in the dictionary.
There were no entries for Washington, America, or England.
Okay, asshole. Maybe this dictionary doesn’t list the names of places.
So I looked up earth. Earth had to be in there, right? It wasn’t just a name.
And it wasn’t in the book, either.
Bet you don’t have the balls to look up Marbury, do you Jack?
I looked up Marbury.
I found it.
Of course I found it.
*   *   *
Fuck you, Jack.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Smith