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JOHN DIES AT THE END (Chapter 1)
The Levitating "Jamaican"
They say Los Angeles is like The Wizard of Oz. One minute it's small-town monochrome neighborhoods and then boom--all of a sudden you're in a sprawling Technicolor freak show, dense with midgets.
Unfortunately, this story does not take place in Los Angeles.
The place I was sitting was a small city in the Midwest which will remain undisclosed for reasons that will become obvious later. I was at a restaurant called "They China Food!" which was owned by a couple of brothers from the Czech Republic who, as far as I could tell, didn't know a whole lot about China or food. I had picked the place thinking it was still the Mexican bar and grill it had been the previous month; in fact, the change was so recent that one wall was still covered by an incompetent mural of a dusky woman riding a bull and proudly flying the flag of Mexico, carrying a cartoon burrito the size of a pig under her arm.
This is a small city, large enough to have four McDonald's but not so big that you see more than the occasional homeless person on the way. You can get a taxi here but they're not out roving around where you can jump off the sidewalk and hail one. You have to call them on the phone, and they're not yellow.
The weather varies explosively from day to day in this part of America, the jet stream undulating over us like an angry snake god. I've seen a day when the temperature hit one hundred and eight degrees, another when it dipped eighteen degrees below zero, another day when the temperature swung forty-three degrees in eight hours. We're also in Tornado Alley, so every spring swirling, howling charcoal demons materialize out of the air and shred mobile homes as if they were dropped in huge blenders.
But all that aside, it's not a bad town. Not really.
A lot of unemployment, though. We've got two closed factories and a rotting shopping mall that went bankrupt before it ever opened. We're not far from Kentucky, which marks the unofficial border to the South, so one sees more than enough pickup trucks decorated with stickers of Confederate flags and slogans proclaiming their brand of truck is superior to all others. Lots of country music stations, lots of jokes that contain the word "nigger." A sewer system that occasionally backs up into the streets for some unknown reason. Lots and lots of stray dogs around, many with grotesque deformities.
Okay, it's a shithole.
There are a lot of things about this undisclosed city that the chamber of commerce won't tell you, like the fact that we have more than quadruple the rate of mental illness per capita than any other city in the state, or that in the '80s the EPA did a very discreet study of the town's water supply in hope of finding a cause. The chief inspector on that case was found dead inside one of the water towers a week later, which was considered strange since the largest opening into the tank was a valve just ten inches wide. It was also considered strange that both of his eyes were fused shut, but that's another story.
My name is David, by the way. Um, hi. I once saw a man's kidney grow tentacles, tear itself out of a ragged hole in his back and go slapping across my kitchen floor.
I sighed and stared blankly out of the window of They China Food!, occasionally glancing at the clock sign that flashed 6:32 P.M. in the darkness from the credit union across the street. The reporter was late. I thought about leaving.
I didn't want to tell this story, the story of me and John and what's happening in Undisclosed (and everywhere else, I guess). I can't tell the story without sounding as nuts as a . . . a nut bush, or--whatever nuts grow from. I pictured myself pouring my heart out to this guy, ranting about the shadows, and the worms, and Korrok, and Fred Durst, babbling away under this wall-sized portrait of a badly drawn burrito. How was this going to turn into anything but a ridiculous clusterfuck?
Enough, I said to myself. Just go. When you're on your deathbed you're gonna wish you could get back all the time you spent waiting for other people.
I started to stand but stopped myself halfway up. My stomach flinched, as if cattle-prodded. I felt another dizzy spell coming on.
I fell hard back into the booth. More side effects. I was already light-headed, my body trembling from shoes to shoulders in random spells, like I swallowed a vibrator. It's always like this when I'm on the sauce. I dosed six hours ago.
I took slow, deep breaths, trying to cycle down, to level off, to chill out. I turned to watch a little Asian waitress deliver a plate of chicken fried rice to a bearded guy on the other side of the room.
I squinted. In half a second I counted 5,829 grains of rice on her plate. The rice was grown in Arkansas. The guy who ran the harvester was nicknamed "Cooter."
I'm not a genius, as my dad and all my old teachers at Undisclosed Eastern High School will inform you with even the slightest provocation. I'm not psychic, either. Just side effects, that's all.
The shakes again. A quick, fluttery wave, like the adrenaline rush you get when you lean your chair too far past the tipping point. Might as well wait it out, I guess. I was still waiting on my "Flaming Shrimp Reunion," a dish I ordered just to see what it looked like. I wasn't hungry.
A flatware set was wrapped in a napkin on the table in front of me. A few inches away was my glass of iced tea; a few inches from that was another object, one I didn't feel like thinking about right then. I unwrapped my utensils. I closed my eyes and touched the fork, immediately knew it was manufactured in Pennsylvania six years ago, on a Thursday, and that a guy had once used it to scrape a piece of dog shit from his shoe.
You've just gotta make it through a couple of days of this, said my own voice again from inside my skull. You'll open your eyes tomorrow or the next day and everything will be okay again. Well, mostly okay. You'll still be ugly and kind of stupid and you'll occasionally see things that make you--
I did open my eyes, and jerked in shock. A man was sitting across from me in the booth. I hadn't heard or felt or smelled him when he slid into the seat. Was this the reporter I spoke to on the phone?
Or a ninja?
"Hey," I mumbled. "Are you Arnie?"
"Yeah. Did you doze off there?" He shook my hand.
"Uh, no. I was just tryin' to rub somethin' off the back of my eyelid. I'm David Wong. Good to meet ya."
"Sorry I'm late."
Arnie Blondestone looked just like I imagined him. He was older, uneven haircut and a bad mustache, a wide face made for a cigar. He wore a gray suit that looked older than I was, a tie with a fat Windsor knot.
He had told me he was a reporter for a national magazine and wanted to do a feature on me and my friend John. It wasn't the first request like this, but it was the first one I had agreed to. I looked the guy up on the Web, found out he did quirky little human-interest bits, Charles Kuralt stuff. One article about a guy who obsessively collects old lightbulbs and paints landscapes on them, another about a lady with six hundred cats, that sort of thing. It's what polite people have instead of freak shows I guess, stories we can laugh at around the coffee machines in the office break room.
Arnie's gaze stayed on my face a little too long, taking in my beads of cold sweat, my pale skin, the thatch of overgrown hair. Instead of pointing out any of that, Arnie said, "You don't look Asian, Mr. Wong."
"I'm not. I was born in [Undisclosed]. I had the name changed. Thought it would make me harder to find."
Arnie gave me the first of what I assumed would be many, many skeptical looks. "How so?"
I half closed my eyes, my mind flooding with images of the 103 billion humans who have been born since the species appeared. A sea of people living, dying and multiplying like cells in a single organism. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to clear my mind by focusing on a mental image of the waitress's boobs.
I said, "Wong is the most common surname in the world. You try to Google it, you've got a shitload of results to sift through before you get to me."
He said, "Okay. Your family live around here?"
Getting right to it, then.
"I was adopted. Never knew my real dad. You could be my dad, for all I know. Are you my dad?"
"Eh, I don't think so."
I tried to figure out if these were warm-up questions to prime the interview pump, or if he already knew. I suspected the latter.
Might as well go all-in. That's why we're here, right?
"My adopted family moved away, I won't tell you where they are. But get out your pen because you'll want to write this down. My biological mom? She was institutionalized."
"That must have been hard. What was the--"
"She was a strung-out, crank-addicted cannibal, dabbled in vampirism and shamanism. My mom, she worshipped some major devil when I was a toddler. Blew her welfare check every month on black candles. Sure, Satan would do her favors now and then, but there's always a catch with the Devil. Always a catch."
A pause from Arnie, then, "Is that true?"
"No. This, this silliness, it's what I do when I'm nervous. She was bipolar, that's all. Couldn't keep a house. Isn't the other story better, though? You should use it."
Arnie gave me a practiced look of reporterly sincerity and said, "I thought you wanted to get the truth out, your side of it. If not, then why are we even here, Mr. Wong?"
Because I let women talk me into things.
"You're right. Sorry."
"Now, since we broached the subject, you spent your senior year in high school in an alternative program . . ."
"Yeah, that was just a misunderstanding," I lied. "They have this label, 'Emotionally Disturbed' that they put on you, but it was just a couple of fights. Kid stuff, no charges or anything. Craziness is not hereditary."
Arnie eyed me, both of us aware of the fact that juvenile records are sealed from public viewing and that he would have to take my word for it. I wondered how this would end up in his article, especially in light of the utter batshit insanity of the story I was about to share.
He moved his gaze to the other object on the table, from his perspective, a small, innocent-looking container. It was about the size and shape of a spool of thread, made of flat, brushed metal. I rested my fingers on it. The surface was icy to the touch, like it had spent all night in the freezer. If you set the thing out in the hot sun from morning to night it would still feel that way. You could mistake it for a stylish pill bottle, I suppose.
I could blow your world away, Arnie. If I showed you what was in this container, you'd never sleep another full night, never really lose yourself in a movie again, never feel at one with the human race until the day you die. But we're not ready for that, not yet. And you sure as hell won't be ready for what's in my truck. . . .
"Well," Arnie began again, "either way, mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. We just get sick from time to time, part of being human, you know? For instance, I was just talking to a guy up north, a high-priced lawyer-type who spent two weeks in the psych ward himself a little while ago. Name of Frank Campo. You know that name?"
"Yeah, I knew him a little."
"Frank wouldn't talk to me, but his family said he was having hallucinations. Almost daily, right? Guy had this car wreck and from then on he just got worse and worse. He freaked out at Thanksgiving. Wife brought in the turkey, but to Frank, it wasn't a turkey. Frank saw a human baby, curled up on the platter, cooked to a golden brown. Stuffing jammed in its mouth. He went nuts, wouldn't eat for weeks after that. He got to where he was having incidents every few days. They figured it was brain damage, you know, from the accident. But the doctors couldn't do squat. Right?"
"Yeah. That's about it."
You skipped over the weirdest part, Arnie. What caused the accident in the first place. And what he saw in his car. . . .
"And now," said Arnie, "he's cured."
"Is that what they say? Good for him, then. Good for Frank."
"And they swear that it was you and your friend who cured him."
"Me and John, yeah. We did what we could. But good for Frank. I'm glad to hear he's okay."
A little smile played at Arnie's lips. Acidic. Look at the crazy man with his incompetent, crazy-man haircut and his crazy little pill bottle and his crazy fucking story.
How many decades of cynicism did it take to forge that smirk, Arnie? It makes me tired just looking at it.
"Tell me about John."
"Like what? In his midtwenties. We went to school together. John isn't his real name, either."
"Let me guess . . ."
The images start to rush in again, the mass of humanity spreading across the globe over centuries like a time-lapse video of mold taking over an orange. Think of the boobs. Boobs. Boobs. Boobs.
". . . John is the most common first name in the world."
"That's right," I said. "And yet there's not a single person named John Wong. I looked it up."
"You know, I work with a John Wong."
"Let's move on," Arnie said, probably making a mental note that this David Wong guy isn't above just making shit up.
Holy crap, Arnie, just wait until you hear the rest of the story. If your bullshit meter is that finely tuned, in a few minutes it's liable to explode and take half a city block with it.
"You guys already got a little bit of a following, don't you?" he said, flipping back to a page in a little notebook already riddled with scribbles. "I found a couple of discussion boards on the Web devoted to you and your friend, your . . . hobby, I guess. So, you're, what, sort of spiritualists? Exorcists? Something like that?"
Okay, enough farting around.
"You have eighty-three cents in your front pocket, Arnie," I said quickly. "Three quarters, a nickel, three pennies. The three pennies are dated 1983, 1993 and 1999."
Arnie grinned the superior grin of the "I'm the smartest man in the room" skeptic, then scooped his coins out of his pocket. He examined the contents, confirmed I was right.
He coughed out a laugh and brought his fist down on the table, my utensils clinking with the impact. "Well I'll be damned! That's a neat trick, Mr. Wong."
"If you flip the nickel ten times," I continued, "you'll get heads, heads, tails, heads, tails, tails, tails, heads, tails, tails."
"I'm not sure I want to take the time to--"
For a brief moment, I considered taking it easy on Arnie. Then I remembered the grin. I unloaded.
"Last night you had a dream, Arnie. You were being chased through a forest by your mother. She was lashing you with a whip made of knotted penises."
Arnie's face fell, like an imploded building. As much as I hated the expression on his face a few minutes ago, I loved this one.
That's right, Arnie. Everything you know is wrong.
"You got my attention, Mr. Wong."
"Oh, it gets better. A lot better."
Bullshit. What it gets is worse. A lot worse.
"It started a few years ago," I began. "We were just a couple of years out of high school. Just kids. So that friend of mine, John, he was at a party . . ."
John had a band back in those days. The party was happening Woodstock-style in a muddy field next to a lake in a town a few minutes outside of Undisclosed city limits. It was April of that year and the party was being put on by some guy, for his birthday or whatever. I don't remember.
John and I were there with his band, Three-Arm Sally. It was around nine o'clock when I strode out onto the stage with a guitar slung over my shoulder, greeted by a smattering of unenthusiastic applause from the hundred or so guests. The "stage" was just a grid of wooden pallets laid together on the grass, orange drop cords snaking underfoot from the amps to a nearby shed.
I glanced around, saw a set list taped to one of their crackly old Peavey amplifiers. It read:
Camel HolocaustGay SupermanStairway to HeavenLove My SasquatchThirty Reasons Why I Dislike Chad WellsburgLove Me Tender
We took our places.
It was me, Head (the drummer), Wally Brown (bass), Kelly Smallwood (bass) and Munch Lombard (bass). John was lead guitar and vocals, but he wasn't on stage, not yet. I should let you know that I had no idea how to play the guitar or any other musical instrument, and that the sound of my singing voice could probably draw blood from a man's ears, and perhaps kill a dog outright.
I stepped up to the mic.
"I want to thank you all for coming. This is my band, Three-Arm Sally, and we're here to rock you like the proverbial hurricane."
The crowd muttered its indifference. Head hammered the drums for the intro to "Camel Holocaust." I slung the guitar around and got ready to rock.
Suddenly, my whole body wrenched in a display of unbearable pain, knees buckling. My hands shot to my head and I collapsed to the stage, screaming like a wounded animal. I scraped the guitar strings to throw out some painful, spastic feedback on my way down. The crowd gasped, watching as I flew into a series of exaggerated convulsions, then finally lay still.
Munch rushed over, studied me like a paramedic. I lay there like a dead man. He touched my neck, then stood and turned to the mic.
"He's dead, ladies and gentlemen."
A rustling, drunken panic in the crowd.
"Wait. Please, please. Everyone. Pay attention. Just calm down."
He waited for quiet.
"Now," he said. "We have a whole show to do. Is there anyone here who knows how to sing and play guitar?"
A tall man stepped out of the crowd, a head of curly long hair like a deflated afro. This was John. He wore an orange T-shirt with a black stenciled stamp bearing the logo of VISTA PINES FACILITY FOR THE CRIMINALLY INSANE. The last two words had been crossed out with a black Magic Marker and the words NOT INSAN were scrawled crazily over it. The whole shirt, logo and all, was John's handiwork.
"Well," John said, in a fake Southern accent, "I reckon I can play a little."
Kelly, according to script, invited him onto the stage. John pried the guitar out of my dead hands while Head and Wally dragged me carelessly off into the grass. John picked up the instrument and tore into the "Camel Holocaust" intro. Three-Arm Sally began every single show this way.
" I knew a man
No, I made that part up
Hair! Hair! Haaairrr!
Camel Holocaust! Camel Holocaust!"
That whole bit was something John had come up with, the man having a terrible habit of carrying out his drunken 3:00 A.M. ideas even after daylight and sobriety came. It was always 3:00 A.M. for John.
I turned onto my back and stared into the night sky. That's what I remember, from that last moment of real peace in my life. The rain had ended hours ago, the stars freshly cleaned and polished against their black velvet background. The music thrummed through the ground and the cool moisture of the grass soaked up through my sweatshirt as I gazed into the twinkling jewels of infinity, all spit-shined by God's shirtsleeve. And then the dog barked and everything turned to goat shit.
It was rusty red, maybe an Irish setter or a red Labrador or a . . . Scottish rust-dog. I don't know my dogs. Ten feet of thin chain trailed off its collar. Bounding around the partygoers, a bundle of manic canine energy, drunk on the first freedom of its life.
It squatted and peed on the grass, ran over to another spot and peed there, too. Marking this whole new world as its territory. It came toward me at a trot, the chain hissing through the grass behind it. It sniffed around my shoes, decided I was dead, I guess, and began snuffling around my pockets to see if I had died with any beef jerky on me.
It recoiled when I reached up to pet it, a catty "don't touch the hair" look on its face.
A brass tag, on its collar.
Etched with a message.
PLEASE RETURN ME TO . . .
. . . with an address in Undisclosed listed below. At least seven miles from home. I wondered how long it had taken the animal to etch that tag.
The dog, having nothing else to gain from our relationship, trotted away. I followed it, deciding on the spot that I would load up the dog and return it to the owners, who were probably worried sick about it. Probably a family with a little girl, crying her eyes out waiting for it to come back.
Or, a couple of sorority girls dealing with their grief through a series of erotic massages . . .
It's hard to look cool chasing after a dog, especially since I sort of run like a girl anyway. The dog pitched annoyed glances back my way as I trotted after it, picking up speed each time. I wound up taking a circuitous path all the way to the other side of the field, where I heard something that turned my guts cold.
A shriek. High-pitched, almost a whistle. Only two creatures on God's Earth can make that sound: African Grey Parrots and fifteen-year-old female humans. I spun around, moved toward the commotion. The dog seemed to eye me carefully, then ran off in the other direction. I looked around--
Ah. Giggling now. There was a bundle of girls, away from the stage, huddled with their backs to the band. They were surrounding a black guy with dreadlocks, an overcoat. He had one of those Rastafarian berets on his head, definitely going for a look, wanting the attention. Two of the girls had their hands over their mouths, eyes bulging, screaming for the guy to do it again, do it again. From the reaction I figured I had just encountered the most dreaded of all partygoers: the amateur magician.
"Oh my gawd!" said the nearest girl. "That guy just levitated!"
One girl looked pale, on the verge of tears. Another threw up her hands and walked away, head shaking.
Gullibility is a knife at the throat of civilization.
"How high?" I asked blandly.
The Jamaican turned his gaze on me, trying to pull off the piercing stare of the exotic voodoo priest. It was an expression that was supposed to make me hear theremin music in my head.
"You gotta love the skeptic, mon," the guy said in a rubber accent that was part Jamaican, part Irish and part pirate.
"Show him! Show him!" screeched a couple of the girls.
I'm not sure why I feel the need to rain on this kind of parade. I like to think I'm standing up for skepticism but in reality I was probably just pissed that this guy was going to have sex tonight and I wasn't.
"What, about six inches above the grass, right?" I asked him. "Balducci levitation? Made famous by magic hack David Blaine in his television special? All you need is some strong ankles and a little acting, right?"
And a stupid, drunken audience . . .
His gaze froze on me. I had a familiar, nervous sensation, one that goes all the way back to elementary school. It's the simultaneous realization that I may have talked my way into another fistfight, and that I had not spent any time learning to fight since the last one. In a town where Friday night bar brawls make the Undisclosed emergency room look like the aftermath of a Third World election, sometimes it's better for smart-asses like me to just keep walking.
Then, he broke out in a big, white, toothy smile. A charmer.
"Let's see . . . what can I do to impress Mr. Skeptic Mon? Ah, lookee there. You didn't wash behind your ears, did ya?"
I let out a loud, theatrical sigh as he reached out to the side of my head, presumably to pull out a shiny quarter from behind my ear. But when he pulled back his hand, he was holding, not a coin, but a long, wriggling black centipede. He let it dangle over his fist, turning his hand over as it crawled around and around. One of the girls squealed.
He pinched it between thumb and forefinger, held the wriggling thing up for everyone to see. I noticed for the first time he had a few layers of first-aid tape wrapped around his other hand. He passed this hand in front of the bug and in a blink, the centipede was gone. The girls gasped.
"Well, the bug was a nice touch," I said, glancing at my watch.
"You wanna know where it went, mon?"
"No." I wasn't feeling well all of a sudden. This guy was giving me an odd feeling in my gut. "But, you know, don't get me wrong. I am one entertained son of a bitch."
"I got other talents, you know."
"Yeah, but I bet all your really good tricks are back at your apartment, right? And you'd be happy to show them to me, if only I were sixteen and female?"
"Do you dream, mon? I interpret dreams for beer."
That's the town of Undisclosed in a nutshell. This run-down half city with more weirdos per capita than you'll find anywhere outside of San Francisco. We should have that printed on the green population sign coming into town: WELCOME TO [UNDISCLOSED]. DREAMS INTERPRETED FOR BEER.
I said, "Well, I don't have any beer so I guess I'm outta luck."
"I tell you what, Mr. Skeptic Mon. I'll do it just like Daniel in the Old Testament. I'll tell you the last dream you had, then I'll break down its meaning for you. But if I'm right, you gotta buy me a beer. Okay, mon?"
"Sure. I mean, you've obviously been blessed with supernatural gifts. What better way to use them than to fish for free beers at parties." I craned my head around, and thought I saw the dog trotting around a tent where somebody was selling corn dogs. I told my feet to turn and walk after it. I commanded my mouth to tell this guy "never mind." Neither responded.
I knew that absolutely nothing good could possibly come from this encounter and, somehow, that a whole lot of bad could come instead. But my feet were planted.
"You had a dream early this morning, in the middle of the thunderstorm."
I looked him in the eye.
Pfft. Lucky guess . . .
"In the dream, you were back with your girl Tina . . ."
Whoa, how'd he know--
"--and you come home, and she's there with a big honkin' pile of dynamite. One of those big cartoon plunger detonators, ready to blow. You ask her what she's doin' and she says 'this' and shoves down the handle and," he spread his hands in the air, "boom. Your eyes snapped open. The explosion in your dream became the clap of thunder outside your window. So tell me, mon. Am I close?"
Ho. Lee. She. It.
He smiled. All eyes were on me, the naked shock on my face. A girl whispered, "Oh my God . . ."
There is no feeling I hate as much as speechlessness in the face of another man. I mumbled something.
One of the girls muttered, "Was he right? He was right, wasn't he?"
A raven-haired girl next to her wearing raccoon eye shadow suddenly looked like she had been drained by a vampire. The group had unconsciously taken a step or two backward, as if there was some kind of safe distance at which the world would start making sense again.
"The look on his face tells me I was right," he said, through a grin. "Wouldn't you say, girls? But wait, there's more."
I wanted to walk away. Up on the pallet stage behind me John was tearing away the solo that marks the end of "Camel Holocaust," rapping some impromptu lyrics, all over the cacophonous drums of Head "the entire show is one big drum solo in my mind" Feingold, and the band's thunderous triple-threat bass. I've been to a lot of concerts, everything from garage bands to Pearl Jam. Maybe my opinion is biased, but I would have to say that Three-Arm Sally is the shittiest band I've ever heard.
"You can guess the meaning of the dream, mon. The girl layin' in wait for you, ready to wreck your world again. But the dream be tryin' to tell you somethin' else, too. The dream be tryin' to warn you, givin' you a demonstration."
"Okay, okay, okay," I said, holding up my hands. "You made a lucky guess, somebody probably told you about--"
"You see, you gotta be brave to ask yourself the scary questions. How did your mind, David, know the thunder was coming?"
Thunder? What? Get away from this guy, man. Get away get away--
"What? You're full of--"
"The thunder came right as she hit the detonator in your dream. Your mind started the dream thirty seconds before the thunderclap. How did it know the thunder would be coming at that moment, to coincide with the explosion at the end?"
Because it's a poor sort of memory that only works backward, I thought, crazily. Holy shit I'm quoting Alice in Wonderland. This is the worst fucking party ever.
"I don't know. I don't know. This, this is bullshit." I was looking everywhere but at the Jamaican, suddenly terrified that I'd see him floating a foot off the grass. The girls were tittering to each other in amazement, a story to tell in the hallway Monday. Screw them. Screw everybody. But the bastard just wouldn't stop talking.
"We've all had those dreams, mon. You dream you're on a game show, on TV wearin' nothing but a jockstrap. At the exact moment the game show buzzer goes off to tell you you've lost, the telephone buzzes in real life. A call your mind couldn't have known was coming. You see, time is an ocean, not a garden hose. Space is a puff of smoke, a wisp of cloud. Your mind is a--"
I turned away, shaking my head, my mouth dry.
Walk away, walk away. This ain't right, you know it. You want no part of this guy.
Onstage, John was now crooning the slow, mournful dirge that was "Gay Superman."
"The camel of despair
soars, strapped to his jet pack
of haunted memories . . ."
"Want me to tell you where your daddy really was when you were in the hospital with that broken leg?" he said to my back. This stopped me, my guts turning to ice again. "Want me to tell you the name of your soul mate? Or how she'll die?"
"Stop, or I'll tell you how you'll die"--that's what I wanted to say but didn't.
I walked away, forcing the steps. It was that jarring sensation of unreality, like the first time you see the road go spinning around your windshield in the middle of a car crash. I was actually dizzy, unsteady on my feet.
"Do you want to know when the first nuclear bomb will go off on American soil? And which city?"
I almost launched myself at the guy. But, once again a probable trip to the hospital was avoided by physical cowardice. This guy could probably kick my ass even without magical powers. I was so wired at this point I had the insane urge to punch one of those girls instead. Probably lose that fight, too.
"You know what, mon, why don't you take your fake Jamaican accent and get back on the boat to Fake Jamaica," is another thing it would have been cool to say, had I thought of it. Instead I sort of mumbled and made a dismissive motion with my hand as I stumbled into the crowd, acting like the conversation failed to hold my interest.
"Hey!" he shouted after me. "You owe me a beer, mon! Hey!"
Gypsies and psychics and Tarot readers have a hundred generations of practice at their art. And practice is all it is. Cold reading, wishful thinking, deductive reasoning. Throw out some general statement that could apply to any person on this Earth--
"I'm sensing that something is troubling you."
"You're amazing! Yes, it's my husband . . ."
--and the mark tells you the rest. But the fake Jamaican had no way of knowing what he knew. No possible way. I watched my shoes mash through the weeds. This man had just ruptured the thin fabric of all I believed to be--
I walked right into a girl, broadsided her, felled her like a tree. I saw, to my horror, that it was Jennifer Lopez.
You know how to tell if you've been single too long? When you help a girl to her feet and get a rush of excitement for the two seconds you hold her hand on the way up.
"Jeez, sorry," I said as Jennifer picked up her beer bottle. "I was walking away from, uh, you know, voodoo. Thing. Flying voodoo man."
She was in denim shorts and a tank top, hair in a ponytail. I guess I should point out that this was not the famous Jennifer Lopez, but rather a local girl I was fond of who happened to have that same name. I guess it would have made a better story if it turned out to be the singer/actress and if you want to picture J. Lo whenever I mention this girl, feel free, even though my Jennifer only looked like the famous one when she was walking away from you.
She worked as a cashier at Home Depot these days and I made it a point to show up in her lane buying the manliest items in the store. In my apartment I now had an ax, three bags of cement mix and three different crowbars. On the last visit I bought a ten-pound sledgehammer and, looking disappointed, asked her if they had a bigger one. She didn't answer, not even to count back my change.
As she brushed grass clippings off her butt I felt the intense urge to reach over and help her. I managed to restrain myself.
Holy crap, there is no mood-changing substance on Earth like testosterone.
"I'm really, really sorry. You okay?"
"Yeah. Spilled my Zima a little, but . . ."
"What are you doin' here?"
"Just, you know. Party." She gestured vaguely with her hand at the crowd and music. "Well, good seein' ya . . ."
She's walking away! Say something!
"I'm, uh, here with the band," I said, following her while using the most casual, non-following stride I had in my walking repertoire. She glanced up at the band, then back at me.
"You know they started playing without you, right?"
"No, I don't, like, play an instrument or anything. I'm just . . . well, you saw me at the beginning there. I was the guy that fell down and died."
"Well, I just got here." She walked a little faster.
She's getting away! Tackle her!
"Well," I said after her, "I'll see you around."
She didn't answer, and I watched her walk away. Intently.
She met up with some blond kid in droopy pants, a sideways ball cap and a band T-shirt. The whole sequence depressed me so much I didn't think about the floating Jamaican again until . . .
Three hours later, John and the crew were packing their scratched equipment into a white van with the words FAT JACKSON'S FLAP WAGON spray-painted on the side. That was the name of the band before they changed it a few months ago.
"Dave!" said John. "Look! Can you believe how much sweat I have on this shirt?"
"That's . . . somethin'," I said.
"We're all meeting at the One Ball. You comin'?"
That's the One Ball Inn, a bar downtown. Don't ask.
"No," I said, "I gotta go to work in seven hours." John had work, too. We both worked the same shift at the same video store. John had been through six jobs in three years, by the way. Some girl came up behind John and put her arms around him. I didn't recognize her, but that was normal.
"Yeah, me, too," he admitted. "But I gotta buy Robert a beer first."
"Uh, the black guy."
John gestured toward a group of five people, three girls and two dudes with their backs to me. One was a huge guy with red hair, next to him was the rainbow beret and dreadlocks of my voodoo priest.
"See him? He's the one in the white tennis shoes."
Not only did I see him, but he turned toward me. He made eye contact and shouted, "You owe me a beer, mon!"
"The man likes his beer," said John. "Hey, I heard there was somebody from a record company out there tonight."
"I don't like the guy, John. He's . . . there's something not right about him."
"You like so few people, Dave. He's cool. He bet me a beer he could guess my weight. Got it on the first try. Amazing stuff."
"Do you even know how much you weigh?"
"Not exactly. But he couldn't have been off by more than a few pounds."
"Okay, first of all--never mind. John, the guy does an accent. What kind of a person goes around like that? He's phony. Also, I think he might be, uh, into somethin'. Come on."
" 'Into something'? You are so quick to judge. Have you thought that maybe he was raised by his father, who was a fugitive from the law? And that, to conceal his identity, his father had to fake an accent? And that maybe young Robert learned how to talk from his dad and thus adopted that same fake accent?"
"Is that what he told you?"
"Come on, John. My car is behind the trees back there. Come with me."
"Are you goin' to the One Ball?"
"No, obviously not."
"Then I'm ridin' with Head in the Flap Wagon. You're still welcome to come if you want."
I declined. They loaded up and left.
I felt a little abandoned. There wasn't anybody else I really knew there, so I wandered around for a bit, hoping to run into Jennifer Lopez or at least that dog. I did find Jennifer, where she was sitting in a cherry-red '65 Mustang making out with that blond kid. He looked barely old enough to drive. This made me furious for some reason and I sulked my way back to my underfed Japanese economy car, shoes kicking up little sprays of moisture from the tall grass as I went.
The dog was waiting for me.
Right there by my door, like it couldn't understand what had taken me so long. I unlocked the door and "Molly" leapt into the passenger seat. I gawked, half expecting the dog to reach around with her teeth and pull down the seat belt. She didn't. Just waited.
I flung myself down into the little Hyundai, feeling like a thousand questions were squirming around my gut. I dug into my pocket for my car keys. I pulled my hand out--and screamed.
Not a full-fledged female-victim-in-a-slasher-movie scream. Just a harsh, rasping "WHAH?!?" On the palm of my hand, etched into the skin, was the phrase, YOU OWE ME ONE BEER.
I sat there, in the dark, staring at my hand. I did this for several minutes, felt my stomach clench, then decided to lean out the door and vomit in the weeds. I spat and opened my eyes, saw movement in the puddle. Something long and black and wriggling.
So that's where the centipede went . . .
I squeezed my eyes shut and leaned back in my seat. In that moment I decided to go home and crawl into bed and pretend that none of this had ever, ever happened.
Telling the story now, I'm tempted to say something like, "Who would have thought that John would help bring about the end of the world?" I won't say that, though, because most of us who grew up with John thought he would help end the world somehow.
Once, in chemistry class, John "accidentally" made a Bunsen burner explode. I mean it actually shattered a window. He got suspended for ten days for that and if they could have proven it wasn't an accident he'd have been expelled, as I was a year later.
He was kicked out of art class for submitting very, very detailed charcoal nudes of himself, only with about six inches added to his genitalia. He broke his wrist after a fall while trying to ride a friend's van like a surfboard. He has burn scars on the back of his thighs from what he told me was a mishap with homemade fireworks, but what I believe was the result of his and some friends' attempt to make a jet pack. He told me a year ago he wanted to go into politics some day, even though he didn't have even one minute of college. A month ago he told me he wanted to go into the adult film industry instead.
JOHN DIES AT THE END. Copyright 2009 by David Wong.